June 18th, 2017

On Father’s Day, A Rumination on Families with Lots of Doctors

My father is a doctor.

So was my father’s father. And my father’s uncle. And my father’s cousin.

But that’s not all. My father’s brother was also a doctor — he loved being a doctor more than anyone on the planet, and attended neurology meetings long after he retired, right up until the time he died last year.

My father’s brother-in-law (i.e., his sister’s husband) — you guessed it, a doctor.

It gets even more ridiculous. I have two first cousins who are doctors, and three first cousins married to doctors.

And I, of course, am married to a doctor myself. Her brother? A doctor.

Having all of these MDs readily available has had quite an influence on family dynamics. At one of our gatherings, my brother — not a doctor, he’s in finance — told an elderly aunt the name of the bank he was working for at the time.

Hard of hearing, she responded, “What medical school?”

These gatherings, not surprisingly, can sometimes seem more like medical grand rounds than holiday celebrations. You almost expect someone at Thanksgiving Dinner to say, “May I have the first slide, please?”

The medical profession runs so strongly in my family that at times I suspect our various dogs are, in their own doggie world, the dog-equivalent of doctors. A bit nerdy, scholarly, caring for others.

So why is it that some families take to medicine so avidly? It certainly isn’t a universal phenomenon — I routinely ask residency and fellowship applicants if there are doctors in their family, and most of them say no.

You can try researching this question, but it’s a tricky thing to search. (I tried.)

Let’s keep it simple, and list the reasons why people become doctors to begin with:

  • You help people. We never really need to ask the existential question, so why am I doing this job again?
  • It’s interesting. Patients, colleagues, scientific discoveries, technical challenges, policy issues — medicine is endlessly fascinating. No good doctor feels he or she has mastered their field; learning all the time is fun.
  • You have a steady income. No, doctor salaries won’t touch hedge fund managers or real estate developers, or approach the revenues you might get when you sell your high tech startup to Google. And you won’t be able to afford the premiere real estate in the Bay Area or Manhattan — but let’s face it, nobody’s poor here.
  • It’s prestigious. People like doctors. We might not be as popular as we once were, but it sure beats the reputation of lawyers, or politicians, or the CEO of Uber.
  • You can do a lot of different things as a doctor. Aside from my wife (pediatrician) and me (ID doc), included in my family collection of doctors is a psychiatrist, a maxillofacial surgeon, an emergency room doctor, a sleep specialist, an obstetrician-gynecologist, a general internist, a nephrologist, and a Professor of the History of Medicine. I can assure you none of them does the same thing in a typical work day — yet all are doctors.

If those are the reasons why people choose medicine as a career, it still doesn’t quite explain why some families — like mine — have so many doctors.

Maybe we just suffer from a lack of imagination.

Happy Father’s Day! And yes, Dad, going to medical school was the right decision after all.

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8 Responses to “On Father’s Day, A Rumination on Families with Lots of Doctors”

  1. Sue Vicente says:

    No geneticists, huh?

  2. Max Voysey says:

    Similar for many professions/ways of life – from Policing to carpentry, musicians to criminals . . .many things run in families, especially your genes.

  3. Liz Jenny says:

    You missed one important motivation. Fear of death. Hypochondriasis. The best solution for which is to confront the reality of our mortality by dwelling in it everyday with intellect, compassion and a well developed sense of humor. My mother was not a doctor but had amazingly keen intuition for many behaviors that are now iconic dogma. She could see through medical fads and understood that that evidence based generalizations were rough approximations rather than universal truths.
    My mother’s caution and awareness of “germs” likely stemmed from my grand mother who lost her infant twins around 1910. She was born in the year of the Great Influenza when her mother would have witnessed the devastation of that century’s greatest civilian mass casualty event. So awareness of germs was subliminally passed to me. I became an ID doc but the legacy of our family history probably has a lot to do with our choices.

  4. Es Dee says:

    Dear Dr. Sax,

    I love your blog and appreciate the way you break down often complex topics. However, I think a discussion on having doctors in the family has to include the topic of privilege. While I’d like to believe that intelligence, hard work and drive lead to medical school admission, we know that other factors such as race, socioeconomic status, and social capital play a big role.

    There’s a good amount of research on this question – it just depends on your search terms:


    Keep up the amazing work with your blog. I often share your posts with residents and fellows.


    ID doc in DC

    • Paul Sax says:

      Completely agree, good point. My father’s father (my grandfather, never met him) was part of an immigrant family, so this career choice had less of a boost from privilege than the rest of us! (And that google search I linked was deliberately awkward, as kind of a joke — not so funny I guess.)

      Thanks for reading, I do appreciate it!


      • ID Doc in LA says:

        Hello Dr. Sax,

        Great post, as always. I think the poster above has a great point about privilege. Almost certainly the struggles underwent and perseverance shown by your grandfather was an inspiration to your family. He still had privilege, though, as being a man allowed one much easier entry into medical school at that time. There are a myriad of socioeconomic and racial issues involved in privilege, and even an immigrant like your grandfather benefited from them. We all just need to acknowledge them. Just my 2 cents. : )

  5. Brisson Muia says:

    Its interesting the amount of influence family memebrs can have on each other…

  6. Linda says:

    Interesting read

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HIV Information: Author Paul Sax, M.D.

Paul E. Sax, MD

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Infectious Diseases

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