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Partha Kar: Is being a doctor a vocation?

BMJ 2020; 368 doi: (Published 03 March 2020) Cite this as: BMJ 2020;368:m227

Rapid Response:

Back to reality. Re: Partha Kar: Is being a doctor a vocation?

Dear Editor

The use of the word vocation appears to have declined over the past few decades having reached a peak in the inter-war period (1). This is interesting itself but especially so when you consider that Raymond Tallis told us that ‘societies get the doctors they deserve’ (2). The itinerary of changes, good and bad, that have happened to the healthcare profession over the past few decades is extensive and beyond the scope of this comment. Whether or not these changes have reflected societal values remains up for debate but suffice to say that medicine is no longer in (nor ever was) the fabled golden age that many of us appear to remember. (3)

Which brings us to the reality of today. The word vocation in the healthcare setting seems to be exclusively used by apologists of the current healthcare service, especially when it comes to justifying the sacrifices that healthcare professionals are expected to make in order to prop up a system that allows the very same workers to burnout. Being a doctor is no longer a vocation nor is it just a normal job. It simply is what it is. So please be careful when telling our colleagues that being a doctor is a vocation as you may find yourself in that wonderful situation of sounding simultaneously anachronistic and condescending.

1. Google Ngram viewer for the term “vocation":

2. Tallis R. Hippocratic oaths: medicine and its discontents. London: Atlantic; 2004.

3. Myth of medicine’s “golden age” is burden to young doctors, says Gerada

Competing interests: Blogger at

09 March 2020
Sati Heer-Stavert
General Practitioner