Relative Deprivation in the World of Medicine - Wellness Section Newsletter, March 2014

Saleen Manternach, MD, FACEP

“There are two kinds of people, those who do the work and those who take the credit. Try to be in the first group; there is less competition there.”--‐ Indira Gandhi

As Emergency Medicine physicians we are the first group – we understand that we just need to get it done. We rarely get accolades, but trudge on because we are warriors. But sometimes, a feeling of wanting interferes. Until a few months ago, I had never heard the term “relative deprivation,” or even known that I, at times, suffer from this condition.1

Simply, it means to compare yourself to others who are relative or similar to you rather than to the general population (and to feel inferior). For example, when you completed your undergraduate education, you were most likely at the top of your class. However, once you entered medical school and surrounded yourself with others at the top of their respective classes, you started doubting your intelligence and wondered whether the admissions committee read your MCAT scores incorrectly.

These feelings are a normal part of human nature. Some theories suggest that relative deprivation may at times motivate us to strive for better results and to make change. Then again, if this “condition” is left unchecked, it can lead to low self-esteem, resentment, and feelings of inadequacy. This can be harmful to our souls as humans and physicians. As Emergency Physicians, we are expected to think on our feet – there is no time to hesitate. Being held to unattainable standards of perfection while bearing witness to human misery and mortality can be crippling. Some days your best is just not good enough.

Because you are not aware of similar trials and tribulations of your colleagues, you may feel ashamed or incompetent. You try to embrace collegial suggestions in the spirit of betterment and learning, but start doubting yourself and your abilities. The next shift looms. Your clouded self – judgment is harsher than it should be. In the spirit of wellness this year, let us make a conscious effort to remember that we all bring a unique set of skills and qualities to our patients and to the practice of medicine. We have all worked hard to become physicians --‐ healers. At times it may be difficult to recognize our highly specialized talents (because we are surrounded by high achieving colleagues with similar talents and skills), it is helpful to step back once in a while and reflect. As we try to navigate the ever--‐changing medical landscape, let us remember that not everyone can do what we do. We are everyday heroes.

1. I learned about it after reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book “David and Goliath.”
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