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  • Nathan Riley, MD

Dehumanization and the Myth of Grit in Medicine

Updated: Jul 20, 2019

If you want to succeed at something difficult, you must have grit.

“I won’t just have a job; I’ll have a calling. I’ll challenge myself every day. When I get knocked down, I’ll get back up. I may not be the smartest person in the room, but I’ll strive to be the grittiest.” ― Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

Very early in my medical training, I was counseled on the virtue of grit:

“Taking care of your patients must come first.” “You need to build resilience.” “Your wife needs to understand that your work comes first.” “It’s going to be hard, but it’ll be worth it.” “No pain, no gain”

The result is the dehumanization of physicians: you must not sleep, eat, pee, poop, emote, create, relax, or relate, as these tasks might interfere with your practice of medicine. Furthermore, you fear being seen as weak if you complain about anything, particularly your mental and physical well-being. To this I say bologna. We take this badge of self-sacrifice so seriously that many of our physicians are increasingly killing themselves to escape the demands of modern medicine.

If dehumanization is important for the development of grit, and if grit is important for the practicing physicians, is it any surprise that many physicians have poor bedside manner or struggle to provide compassionate, patient-centered, empathic care?

Care for other humans is impossible when the demands of your profession and society are defined by a practice in neglecting your own human needs.

In medicine, we need more grit like we need a hole in the head.


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