As you’ve learned in our series on neurology, this specialized medical field is complicated and requires years and years of schooling before you can enter into private practice.
Even though you’re now familiar with these details and the amount of education you need, you may still be wondering what a typical day is like for both a neurologist and a neurosurgeon. Are the time and expense worthwhile? Is it something you’d like?
To help you answer these questions, we’re going to review a typical day for both doctors – what’s different between them and what’s common to both. Although there may be some variations from doctor to doctor, it gives a good idea of what you can expect.
A Typical Day in the Life of a Neurologist
The day of a neurologist may start as early as 8:00 a.m. At the beginning of most days, a neurologist will see patients. Individuals make appointments or are referred to the neurologist because something may be wrong with their nervous system.
In an initial meeting, the objective of the neurologist is twofold. He needs to understand the complaint, and also how that impairment impacts their life. Does it prevent certain activities? Is there pain with one activity, but no pain with another? The location of the pain is another clue to the possible problem. The answers to these and other specific questions allow the neurologist to tailor a treatment plan so the patient’s health and lifestyle can be restored as much as possible.
If a neurologist has gone into a subspecialty of neurology, elements of the day will differ from one physician to the next. But in all cases, the job is solving what’s happening inside the brains of their patients. An ultimate diagnosis determines treatment and prognosis. In some cases, the appointment results in a referral to a neurosurgeon or other specialized doctor.
Neurologists can work in hospitals or in private offices. Their average week is approximately 40 hours. If you go into this career and would like to maintain consistent hours, then opening up a private practice or working in a research or medical school may be better for you. If you don’t mind working longer hours (50 or more), you may find a hospital environment more to your liking. In a hospital setting, you’ll treat a variety of urgent and emergency cases.
The day of a neurologist is fast-paced. It can also be very stressful. It’s not easy to see patients who are frightened, and many of them are. Some days a neurologist has to give bad news to someone. Imagine how hard it is telling someone they have multiple sclerosis, or epilepsy. No matter how well they break that kind of news, patients will be upset and begin a grief process. So compassion, patience, and understanding are characteristics the neurologist must demonstrate.
A Typical Day in the Life of a Neurosurgeon
Because many surgeries begin early in the morning, the day of a neurosurgeon may start as early as 5:30 a.m. The primary job of a neurosurgeon is performing surgeries to correct problems with the nervous system. Surgical procedures take hours to perform, so neurosurgeons do not meet with as many patients as a neurologist does.
When potential surgery is not an emergency, neurosurgeons see patients by appointment. In other cases, patients are incapacitated because they’ve experienced some trauma, like a car accident. Either way, since surgery may be involved in restoring the patient back to health, the patient and their families are frustrated and upset. As with a neurologist, it is the responsibility of the surgeon to gather a medical history to determine what’s wrong and how it can be corrected. In emergencies, an assessment must be performed as quickly as possible.
Neurosurgeons like family members to be present. People close to the patient can provide objective observations about how he or she eats, sleeps and engages in daily activities. These perceptions are clues leading to a diagnosis. Family may also be more candid about how well the patient sees or hears – both of which can point to impairments of the nervous system. During post-operative meetings surgeons discuss ongoing care and how family members can help.
Some days a surgeon removes a brain tumor. The next operation may be repairing nerve damage. Although there are surgeries essential for patients, other operations may be elective. Elective surgeries are usually scheduled later in the day since they are not as great a priority. However, it is typical for scheduled elective surgeries to be postponed at the last minute because an unscheduled emergency surgery has to be performed. Emergency surgeries include aneurysms, strokes or even a craniotomies due to head traumas. Because neurosurgeons have to make allowances for emergencies, their day may not go as originally planned. They must be flexible.
Neurosurgeons work long, sometimes arduous hours. They frequently perform multiple operations in a single day. Some are straightforward and don’t take very long. Others, like brain surgeries, are complex and last for hours. Successful neurosurgeons may start the day before dawn and not get home until 9:00 or 10:00 at night.
The work of a neurosurgeon is intense. There are significant stressors and pressures on a neurosurgeon. Interactions with patients receiving bad news is an emotional stressor. Performing an operation to save a life takes hours and hours of time, putting a surgeon under considerable pressure. If you want to become a neurosurgeon, you must be capable of working under constant stress. You must also be confident in your decision-making abilities, especially since some decisions have to be made quickly.
Commonalities to the Days of Neurologists and Neurosurgeons
Working with Patients
Neurosurgeons and neurologists must be prepared to work with patients who are scared and angry. Patients are on edge, and these doctors have to be capable of managing intense emotional situations in both emergency and non-emergency situations. They must be able to interact with all kinds of personality styles. Family conflict over potential treatments, a patient’s anger at a diagnosis and other intense feelings are significant elements in relationships between patients, neurosurgeons and neurologists. If you want to enter the field of neurology, you must be prepared to manage uncomfortable conversations.
If someone’s neurological condition is not an emergency, the physician has time to develop rapport and trust. He or she has more opportunity to explain procedures, potential outcomes and any ongoing prognosis. But in emergency situations, trust must be obtained quickly. Emotions are extreme, especially if someone’s life is at stake. Rapport must be established regardless of the situation at hand.
Whether working in an office or hospital, neurologists typically see 14 to 16 patients a day, many of them for follow-up visits. Neurosurgeons will see fewer patients since one surgery may cover the same amount of time as seeing five patients does for a neurologist. For both doctors, watching a patient decline without being able to fix their problem is one of the biggest challenges and disappointments. However, one of the greatest rewards of working with patients is helping them recover from severe neurological setbacks.
Both neurologists and neurosurgeons have administrative details they must tend to at some point during the week or day. They have to maintain records, write prescriptions and fill out paperwork. If they run a private practice, they will meet with any staff who work for them. They may serve on boards and hospital committees, which they have to schedule into their days. Both of these specialized physicians may provide training to medical students or staff members. Additionally, they may supervise medical technicians or surgical nurses.
Other administrative necessities include returning phone calls, responding to emails, and dictating case notes. While they may have some support staff, there are some things only they can do. It’s all part of being a successful neurosurgeon or neurologist.
Continued Education and Collaboration
Neurologists and neurosurgeons actively participate in continuing education. They do this to remain informed about changing trends in the field. They may research with colleagues, or obtain additional certifications through medical organizations. They may pick up a fellowship.
They also collaborate with other neurologists and neurosurgeons as well as neuroradiologists. Because issues with the brain overlap with many conditions, doctors, and surgeons in neurology often work with physicians outside of their field. Besides interacting with physicians in neurology subspecialties, neurologists and neurosurgeons will also meet with speech therapists, psychiatrists, occupational therapists, and physiotherapists.
Best Personality Traits for Neurologists and Neurosurgeons
As you have read, neurologists and neurosurgeons work in highly stressful environments. Either of these career choices require a person to focus on all kinds of conditions and to perform exceptionally well even when facing intense pressure. Patients who seek a doctor due to a neurological condition are under considerable stress themselves, so even the most trusting relationships are tense. These doctor-patient relationships create emotional stress on top of work environment pressure. If you decide to enter the field of neurology, you must be able to manage all of this effectively without negatively impacting your relationships and without lowering exceptional standards of patient care.
Displaying Empathy and Compassion for Patients
Neurosurgeons and neurologists must be compassionate and demonstrate empathy while establishing and maintaining professional boundaries. Keeping firm boundaries is tough because the doctors may have emotional responses to the conditions of their patients. It helps if individuals in these careers have strong support from friends or family in their own lives. Physical activities can also alleviate these stress factors.
Much time is spent by both neurosurgeons and neurologists observing patients and monitoring their brain activity. So neurodoctors must be patient and follow through on these observations. When people see a neurologist or neurosurgeon, it may be their last hope for relief. If you pursue a career in neurology, it can mean interruptions to your personal life, especially if you become a neurosurgeon whose practice is fraught with emergency surgeries. The diligence and dedication required to be in this field may require you to set aside everything else in your life to care for your patients.
Openness to new diagnostic tests and therapies
As you have seen, the field of neurology is constantly changing. If you go into this area, being open to new ideas and new ways of approaching neurological problems is essential. While adjusting to change can be difficult for most people, physicians in neurology have to make the adjustments, especially new therapies and procedures improve the care of patients. The more open neurologists and neurosurgeons are to medical breakthroughs, the higher the standard of care they can provide for their patients.
Attention to Detail and Precision
Accuracy and attention to detail are perhaps two of the most important characteristics of neurosurgeons and neurologists. If you become a neurosurgeon, you must possess a high level of manual dexterity and coordination. If you don’t, it will be difficult performing many of the surgical tasks required. For both professionals, exceptional attention to detail is crucial. Details of a medical history are vital in providing accurate and appropriate neurological diagnoses.
As you can see, a day in the life of either a neurosurgeon or neurologist is intense, although rewarding. The ability to adapt well to change, stamina to work long hours, and genuine pleasure working with patients are the key ingredients to enjoying each day. Based on our four-article series, you now have an understanding of this profession and what it would take pursue the career.
Getting started on the path of neurology today
If you’ve decided you’d like to enter the field of neurology, regardless of your age, you can start learning today.
The Apprentice Doctor offers an online neurology program. In addition to fact and theory, the course also provides opportunities for you to practice some of the skills neurologists, and neurosurgeons perform. You become an apprentice in the field. See: The Apprentice Doctor for more information.
Stop back and read our bonus article in our neurology series – an interview with a neurosurgeon who works in Houston, Texas.
If you missed any article in our neurology series and would like to go back and catch up, click on the following links: