One of the many questions I get asked is, what is it like to be a doctor? Trained in internal medicine, Dr. Curtis Okpara joins the show for us to discuss what it’s like to work in the hospital, how important work-life balance is to us, what has happened to physician autonomy, and how Dr. Okpara is educating the world about what goes on with us physicians behind the white coat. It’s a candid conversation about the things we love and the things we wish changed in healthcare. Dr. Okpara also shares his personal story about how he was an untraditional candidate to become a physician but overcame the doubts to become a top-notch hospitalist.
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Welcome to this episode of the Strive for Great Health Podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Richard Harris. And I have another doc with me, a good friend and colleague, and someone who thinks outside the box when it comes to what it’s like to be in medicine. And actually, that’s the whole reason we’re on this podcast today. We’re talking about kind of perceptions with being a physician.
And I have Dr. Curtis Okpara with me, Curtis; how are you doing, man?
Dr. Curtis Okpara: I’m doing all right, man. I’m doing all right. How are you doing?
Dr. Richard Harris: I’m doing well, thanks for asking my brother. So let’s first start with why, you know, why did you become a hospitalist? Why did you want to take care of people in the hospital?
Dr. Curtis Okpara: For me, it was about finding that perfect work-life balance both inside of the hospital and outside of work with friends, so on and so forth.
And so, although I love medicine, I love family and my personal life a little bit more. And so you know, going through medical school and also residency training, you know, I started to learn about what the hospitalist life is like. And so that’s seven on seven off schedule was just something that really appealed to me.
I could still enjoy medicine and then still have a life outside of medicine where I can enjoy my family and my friends, and then obviously be there for my kids. Cause you know, I wanted to have a big family. And so that hospital’s gig, you know, with, you know, our responsibilities in the hospital just worked perfectly with what I wanted to do both in the hospital as well as outside of the hospital.
Dr. Richard Harris: Yeah. That’s really important. You know, that’s actually why I went into internal medicine too, because I was thinking that when I got out of residency, I never wanted to be called into the hospital at three o’clock in the morning, you know, that’s gotta be one of the worst feelings that you’re sitting there getting garbage sleep anyway.
Cause you never know when the phone’s going to ring. And then it’s two or three o’clock in the morning. You got to get up and go. And for me, I was all about work-life balance as well, because I’d seen so many physicians just burnt out, just shells of people. And I see a lot still that are in their sixties and seventies and they can’t retire because their entire identity is the [00:04:00] job. Like they don’t know how to do anything but be a physician.
Dr. Curtis Okpara: I couldn’t agree more and just like. I mean, we see it all the time at our hospitals that we work too, that we work at together. You know, the older, especially with like the pulmonologists and cardiologists, they just seem like they just, they’re in their seventies pushing almost in their eighties and they’re still working.
And you know, and for us who are, we have a similar type of mindset. That’s not something that we ideally want to do. So I totally agree with you 100%.
Dr. Richard Harris: So, what do you think is the hardest part about the job? You know, I have my thoughts about this and, you know, for people who don’t know hospitalists, we’re internal medicine trained, and we take care of people when they come in the hospital.
So when you come into the ER, you know, myself or Curtis, or one of our colleagues sees you, and then we bring you into the hospital, we take care of you. And then if we need to call specialists, then we’ll do that, but we’re typically the quarterback. We’re the ones who are orchestrating a lot of what happens in the hospital and behind the scenes.
So what’s the hardest part about the job?
Dr. Curtis Okpara: I think personally, it’s something that you really don’t see when you’re in medical school, and even sometimes in training, you really don’t see it because you’re not the ones making the final decisions. It’s not until you get into the real world where you see it.
And I think the biggest thing for me, that I just don’t like is, it feels so robotic now where healthcare now, where, you know, there are all these administration, everybody above you telling you what you can and can’t do as a physician, we put in years and years and years of studying and training and so on and so forth so that we can do things the way we want to do it.
But in a hospital setting, you know, there’s, there’s a lot of. There’s a lot of other people in groups and organizations that, you know, tell you that no, you can’t order this or no, you can’t do this. They have to be discharged at this time. You know, why are those patients still here? So it just feels so robotic now.
And it really takes the, you know, the art of medicine away from us and making us really robotic. I think that is the biggest thing that I’ve noticed coming out to the real world that we’ve had to deal with as physicians, not just physicians, but also as hospitalists.
Dr. Richard Harris: Yeah, I’d have to agree with you there.
The autonomy is disappearing in medicine left and right. And it’s so sad because a lot of us go into be physicians because we want to help people. But also because we’re very driven and we’re very internally motivated. And so if we think something is best for someone, it’s because we’ve done our study, we’ve done our research.
And we’re seeing the actual person right in front of us. And so a lot of times what you’ll see is the book says, do one thing. And then you look at the person you’re like, no, I can’t, I can’t do that. I need to do something else. I need to go a different route. And with a lot of these automated systems and MPPs, and you know, did you order the order set, all that kind of stuff it’s taking away from that autonomy and making decisions.
And that power is being taken away by people who are not at the bedside. And that’s really what drives me crazy. So what about the job do you like the most, you know, what is it that gets you out of bed every day going into the house?
Dr. Curtis Okpara: I think it was the fact that another reason why I chose hospitalists is, you know, as a specialist, you are just specializing in focus on one organ, one system; with the hospitalist, you have to know everything from head to toe. So it keeps you on your feet, keeps you on your toes so that, you know, you have to make sure that you keep things fresh in your brain. And so, being able to see all of these textbook things that we’ve seen through our medical school and during our training and actually seeing that in real life is actually something that is very, very appealing to me.
You know, seeing this rare condition or seeing this, or seeing that it keeps work from being boring, you know what I mean? So no two cases are or are aligned. You know, there’s always differences between those. And that’s what things [00:08:00] that keeps me interested is not being bored, not seeing the same thing all the time.
Yes. You know you get chest painers here and there; you can just see COPD, COPDers here and there. But we see so much in the hospital. And so I’ve always wanted to make sure that I did just didn’t focus on one, one organ, on one system and really be able to broaden my, my knowledge, my knowledge base, from what I learned and apply it, you know, in any given day at the hospital.
Dr. Richard Harris: Yeah. And you know, my listeners know I’m a holistic physician. That’s my thing. And we talk about head to toe. And that approach is so key because I think a lot of the problems that we see in medicine today is that people forget that head to toe approach. They tend to look at things in isolated systems and think about, okay, let’s just think about how this affects the heart.
Well, the heart is also affected by your kidneys. It’s affected by your brain. It’s affected by your lungs. You know, no system exists in isolation. And so, you know, like you see this all the time, where if you just think about one system, you know, you’ll go one way. But if you think about the whole body as a whole, you have to make a different decision.
You know, you can’t save the heart and kill the kidneys. That’s not going to help that person out. And that’s one of the aspects I love about internal medicine. I love that it’s so cerebral that you’re really having to think about a lot of these difficult cases about all these integrated systems, and Hey, what is really going on?
Like what’s the real cause, and what can I do to help this person? So there’s a lot of change going on in hospital medicine right now. You know, I feel like we’re kind of at this shift between the old way of, of medicine and whatever this new wave of medicine is gonna look like. So what is your view on the future of hospital medicine, you know, for those medical students or even high school students thinking about going into this field, what are they going to be seen in 10, 15 years?
Dr. Curtis Okpara: I think that’s a good question. Cause I know, you know, you and myself, as well as other colleagues, have talked about this. You know, every once in a while about, you know, kind of where this is going, because for us going into training, this was still a very relatively new field. It was a very attractive field.
Just the whole seven on seven off schedule one, which is one of the other reasons like we just talked about, that work-life balance was so very attractive. And so. You know, what is it going to be in 10 to 15 years? This is really hard to say, because as we’ve seen with each passing year, hospitals began to recruit more and more nurse practitioners, PAs.
And so, you know, and now they’re in, and I love them. They’re not, you know, they’re with us now and working with and doing the things that we do to a certain extent. And so with the hospital incorporating, you know, more specialties, and it feels like they’re taking. You know they’re taking this thing from us as hospitalists or that thing from us as hospitalists, in terms of what we can do in our autonomy, is hard to say what it is in 10-15 years.
But I do think it’s still gonna be there. I don’t think that’s going to go away just because, you know, we are the ones that you like you say, we are the quarterbacks, we’re the ones that are going to make that last play of the game, which is going to be discharging the patient. And so a lot of specialists and all that are not going to want to do that.
You know, they’re going to want to be able to just do, be consulted. Do whatever they gotta do for the patient and then sign off. So I don’t think, you know, with the way the hospital system is in a way the metrics are and, and length of stay and all of those things, I just can’t see hospital medicine ever going away because it was so important to how the hospital was runs.
Dr. Richard Harris: I agree with you. I think it’s going to change. I think you’re going to see more NPs, Pas, pharmacists in some of these primary care roles, and you’re already starting to see this more accepted. Yes. Having the NP there helps out, having the PA there definitely helps out because most of the time we’re short-staffed, you know, that’s how a lot of program… I don’t think you could talk to anybody who works inpatient care in the hospital and say, and they’ll say.
[00:12:00] Hey. Yeah, we have adequate staff, man we’ve, we’ve got too much staff. Like I’ve never heard anybody say that working in the hospital. And I think that you’re going to see a lot more NPs, PAs come in and do internal medicine, and you’re going to have, you know, hospitalists oversee them and take, you know, the difficult cases and things like that.
So I’m afraid that the job market won’t be as expansive and as attractive as it is now. And. This kind of leads into what you and I have done. We’ve started looking for opportunities outside of, of medicine. And, you know, I didn’t put this on the agenda, but I kind of mentioned this briefly in the intro.
Is, did you ever get when you were coming up, like, you know, I never thought you’d be a doctor, or you don’t look like a doctor, or you don’t act like a doctor, and you know, people just like taking a look at you and perceiving one thing and then being completely shocked when you were a physician.
Dr. Curtis Okpara: Yeah. Just our skin color alone already puts us in this bracket of, oh my God, you’re a doctor, you know. Or if we’re driving a nice car, you know, are you an athlete? You know, are you a celebrity? Are you a raper? Or are you this, that, and the third? So it’s definitely something that we see on a daily basis, whether it’s inside the hospital or outside of the hospital, it doesn’t matter.
We’re definitely the minority in something that is not typically seen in the healthcare field. So yeah, I see it. I mean, we see it all the time we walked into patient’s rooms, and the first thing they think are, you know, are they going to go, are we transporting them to get a chest x-ray done. Or are we going to pick up the tray? You know, we’re about to do physical therapy. So it’s something that’s you know, that we see all the time and we can’t escape from not, in our lifetime at least.
Dr. Richard Harris: Yeah, it was funny. I walked into a guy’s room a couple of weeks ago, and he hands me the food tray. And I was like no, man, I’m not here for your food.
I’m your physician. It was a; it’s funny because you know, I used to get this all the time. I still kind of do, it’s like. You don’t act like a doctor; you don’t talk like a doctor. Like I never would have guessed that you were a doctor. And I was like, well, what does that mean? Like, what’s the notion of what a doctor is supposed to be.
You know? It’s like, you don’t look at someone and be like, Oh, you don’t look like a lawyer, or you don’t look like an engineer, or you don’t look like a teacher. And so I think there’s this misconception of a lot of people that this is exactly what a doctor is supposed to be. This is what they’re supposed to talk.
This is what they’re supposed to wear. This is how they’re supposed to interact with me. And I think people fail to realize at the end of the day, we’re still people, you know, we are people who have a particular skill set, and we want to help people, but you know, we’re still flesh and bone, you know, I still have desires and wants and needs and things outside of medicine.
And I think this is particularly interesting because the both of you and I are changing what it is to be a physician. You know, I say that we are physicianpreneurs, you know, physician entrepreneurs. And that is in the true old spirit of being a physician. Because back in the day, all the physicians owned their own practices.
They were entrepreneurs too, who took care of people, and now is that autonomy is being taken away from us in mainstream medicine. We’re starting to branch out into other avenues. So I know for you, it’s been social media, you’ve been very active on social media, very big on social media. So what brought that about?
Was that just something that you always wanted to do? Something that you just fell into, you know, talk about that.
Dr. Curtis Okpara: Yeah. So, I mean, I’ve always been, and anybody that knows me knows that I’m very transparent. You know, I don’t beat around the Bush. I’m a very straight shooter; if I feel like I can help someone in any way, shape, or fashion, I want to do that. And so with me coming up and me not having the typical route of medicine, you know, I wasn’t the one to have a 4.0 GPA, got over 30 something on the MCAT, and you know, all of these accolades that just put me above everybody else where I could get into medical school in the US.
[00:16:00] I had to go down a route where, you know, I was on academic probation, where I had a GPA more money, where I played football, where I was a fraternity, you know what I mean, where I had to go to medical school in the Caribbean, I had to take all of these different detours to ultimately get to the finish line of becoming a doctor.
And so, you know, there’s always this, this, this notion out here that, you know, you have to have straight A’s, you have to have these great scores to become a doctor, and that’s not true. And so with, you know, before social media, you didn’t really see that you really didn’t, you couldn’t, you know, unless that person was talking to you right in front of you and telling you that, you had no idea that that was even a possibility.
So with social media now these days, and with, you know, the platform that I have, I wanted to make sure that I got that message out there to all of the young folks growing up, that, you know, you don’t have to have the perfect… You don’t have to have that perfect path to become a doctor. You could have your own trials and tribulations have to overcome so many hurdles to become a doctor, and still, you still do it.
You know what I mean? So I am a living testimony over that, a testimony of that. And so I wanted to make sure that, you know, while I am becoming a physician taking care of my patients, you know, doing all these other things on the side, I also want to make sure that I gave back to the community some way.
And I feel like my calling was to reach out to the young folks and let them know that, you know, anything is possible. If you, you know, if, as long as you put your mind to it and you’re motivated, you know, in, in, you know, you, you ignore all the doubts. You can become a doctor, you can be a lawyer, you can be an engineer.
It’s just; it’s just a matter of really just having that tunnel vision and going for it.
Dr. Richard Harris: Yeah, absolutely. That’s so important, you know, dream big and then act on it. Don’t ever let anybody tell you that you can’t be something or do something. You know, I was told that I’d never get into pharmacy school. Okay. I got into pharmacy school.
I was told that even though I was a pharmacist, I wouldn’t get into medical school. Okay. I got into medical school, you know, I was one of the lowest GPA’s in my friend group in high school. You know. I came out of high school, I think, with like a 3.3 GPA, something like that, you know? And I knew that I could be better.
I knew that I needed to take things more seriously, and I put performance standards on myself, you know, because before I never had that, I never had performance standards on myself. And so I would kind of just float around and get by. You know, a lot of people think that they’re not smart enough. And I tell people that some of the smartest people I know from medical school are some of the worst doctors, I know terrible, terrible doctors, and then they could ACE a book test, but then you get him in a real-world scenario, and they have no idea what to do.
Zero. So there’s more to life than just your intelligence, just your IQ. It’s pretty interesting. The data shows that there’s a threshold point with IQ. Like once you reach a certain IQ, it doesn’t get you further in life. What matters the most after that is your EQ. How you connect with people. What’s your motivation?
What’s your drive? And that’s exactly what you just alluded to. You were driven, not so much by personal gain, but by showing other people that, Hey, that there is a way, if I can do this, you can do this. And then now you’re taking all your experiences, everything that you went through, and putting it out there to show people that, Hey, if I did this, you can do this too.
And I think that’s, that’s really amazing. So, what other type of content are you putting on your, on your YouTube channel?
Dr. Curtis Okpara: And obviously there’s, there’s many notions of physicians, you know, whether all, all physicians do is all they do is work, or they’re boring, or they have no social life, or they’re socially awkward. I mean, there’s so many notions of, you know, that, you know, they make all this money, they can’t enjoy it, even though you and me both [00:20:00] feel like we don’t make no money, but that’s neither here nor there.
But you know, it’s, so I wanted to not only, you know, motivate people, motivate those, that. So like, you know, they didn’t have a chance before they ran into my page, but also wanted to show them, you know, what, how your personal life can be, how much fun you can have, the things that you’ve always enjoyed to do outside of work.
So I wanted to make sure that I show that side as well so that people don’t think that, Oh so I wanted to also, you know, portray that. I also wanted to show that side of me. Cause if you know me, you know, I love cars, I love sports; you know that I love fashion, and I love traveling. And so being able to show that as well, it motivates, you may just take someone’s motivation to another level of seeing that, you know, not only can I be a doctor, but I can still enjoy my life the way that I want to do so.
And so that is very, very big for me to be able to, you know, to be able to, you know, show people across the world and try to touch as many people as I possibly can.
Dr. Richard Harris: Yeah. Yeah. I think it’s important that people, again, as we talked about earlier, realize that we are still people that were just normal average everyday people.
And so you’re going to run the gamut. You’re going to have all kinds of different people who become physicians, but I think it’s important for people to look at us like other people because that fosters trust and connection. You know, a lot of the times, especially me when I talked to patients in the hospital, I’m just me like, I’m, I’m a goofball, you know?
I don’t walk in there all high and mighty. Like I’m the doctor, listen to what I say. You don’t do what I say; you’re an idiot. No, I just walk in there and have conversations with people, and you see their entire being shift. I’ve seen this so many times because they’re expecting one interaction, and then their interaction with me is completely different because it’s more like, we’re just having a conversation and, Oh, by the way, I have this knowledge base, and I’m going to help you get better.
And that’s worked out so well for me. And that’s why, you know, not to the extent that you do, you know, with my stuff on YouTube and my videos in this podcast, I just interject my personality into it. Like what you see on the air with me. That’s exactly who I am. You know, that’s not a fabrication; it’s not an alter ego.
This is who I am, whether you’re my friend, you know, my fiance, you know, a patient, a client, it just that’s, you get the same, Richard. And I think that’s very important going forward for especially the younger generation to realize that you can be a physician and still be yourself. Don’t give up on a lot of the things that you used to love because residency is hard, and it stripped away a lot of who I was. The essence of everything that I was basically. And I had to rebuild myself after that. And, you know, I don’t want that to happen to anybody else. So I want people to still be able to be themselves, to do what they love, and be able to flourish as a physician, but also as a human being.
And I think a medical school and residency makes you flourish as a physician. But completely leaves you high and dry about being a human being, and you feel kind of the same way there. Or do you have any thoughts, comments on that?
Dr. Curtis Okpara: I agree. And cause you, you know, you get to, you finish training. I mean, you finished, you graduated from medical school, you’d go on to training, and then you feel like, like you have to do everything that you can to impress your attendings and your, and your program directors and all of this.
So you’re always studying, you feel like you’re always having to impress someone, so you take away. You, you start to get away from who you really are, and you start to get away from the things that, that decompress you, that that makes you sane. And so trying to make sure, trying to come back to reality and realize that, Hey.
You know, I have to take care of myself before I can take care of others is very, very, [00:24:00] very vital and very big and very big. So it was something that, you know, going on my first year, I had to make sure that I kept telling myself because every time that I would get, so, you know, I would get so focused on studying.
I would kind of lose key from, Hey, you need to go. Go workout. Cause that’s what you love to do. Hey, you need to go hang out with your friends cause that what you love to do; that’s what decompresses you and reset your focus so that you can get back to taking care of patients. And, and both you and the patients are kept out of harm’s way.
So I 100% agree. And I think for everybody, I think the majority of people go through that, it just takes a little bit longer for some people than others. And so. I can’t agree with you more. That’s that is very, very big, especially going into training for sure.
Dr. Richard Harris: One of the things I always tell people, and we’ve mentioned this on the podcast before, is that if you don’t take care of yourself, no one else will.
And then if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of anybody else. You know if I’m drowning, I can’t save you from drowning. No. So what do they always say put on your life jacket first? Yeah, it’s, it’s so simple, but it’s so profound because there’s a big, big lack of, of self-care being taught to a lot of our graduate students, too.
A lot of our high performers and this could apply to anything, you know, engineers, lawyers executives, MBAs, you know, all these people who are very driven and pushed towards success. I wish there was more classes out there in the traditional system. You know, our traditional schools that teach self-care and everyone wonders why all these adults are burnt out now.
And that’s the reason it’s just; we push people to succeed, succeed, succeed, get money, get money, get expensive cars, get a nice house, get fancy clothes. And that’s all that matters, and know that that’s not if you like those things. Cool. That’s great, but at the same time, balance yourself, you know, be present in the moment.
Still do the other things that you like. Don’t just chase money just to chase money. Don’t just chase experiences just to chase experiences. So that is a huge component of being any type of professional. In my opinion, is going along the way and making sure that you stay true to who you are. And then also, you know, you see this all the time is that if you’re not set money can change you
This is not something that I’ve ever talked about on the podcast. But when I got out of residency, I started doing a lot of stupid stuff that I wasn’t me. Because, you know, again, I lacked that self-care. I was in a dark place, and I started, you know, looking at all the trappings of life and being like, I deserve this.
I need, this is, this is, this is mine. This is my time now. And that’s how it, and I was empty and broken. And then I got back to being in service. I stopped, I got back to taking care of myself, really taking care of others and focusing on what, what matters. I think that’s very important. That’s a great message that you put out there.
So we’ve talked about it: your YouTube channel, your Instagram. I know you’re very active on both. If people want to give you a follow, why don’t you give them where they can find those: your Instagram, your YouTube.
Dr. Curtis Okpara: Sure. So on Instagram, my Instagram name is doctor feels good. There’s an S after feel. And then on YouTube, it’s the life of Dr. Curtis. O, so if you go to YouTube, go to the search engine and type in the life of Dr. Curtis O, I should pull up and there, you can see a multitude of videos that I just recently started, just three months ago. That I’m just barely getting off the ground, but we’re going, but we’re moving though. We’re moving.
Dr. Richard Harris: Awesome. Well, thank you, man. It’s been a pleasure having you on the show, giving you an insight and you know, the listeners, an insight into what we do as hospitalists, kind of what we go through and you know, our, our mindset about how we, yes, we are doctors, but we’re [00:28:00] more than just that. And we are really trying to be physician entrepreneurs in that sense of an entrepreneur is someone who sees a problem and says, I think I can make this better.
I think I can use this to help people. And that’s exactly what you’re doing with your platform, sharing your story. And it’s great for anyone out there who’s struggling with anything. Definitely check out his information. There’s a lot of really powerful stories there. All right. Well, this has been the Strive for Great Health Podcast with Dr. Richard Harris. Thank you, and have a blessed day.
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