Medical students need to learn to be patients

Growing up, I rarely had a steady primary care physician. Every school-physical, immunization, sports injury, and sore throat was addressed with care and diligence at a family clinic affiliated with a major suburban hospital.

I opted to visit the clinic a few weeks ago for a minor concern but as I drove-in, I was attuned to the fact that the clinic I visit—my clinic—is a teaching site.

Before entering medical school I never gave any thought to the revolving door I am accustomed to. I always appreciated the care I received and the opportunity to meet the new and enthusiastic residents, awkward medical students on their first rotations, and the seasoned physicians responsible for teaching them. After all, it was my normal.

This time, I felt strange walking in and taking my seat amongst other patients in the waiting room. The medical community is a small community. Everyone is woven together by only a few degrees of separation. These connections become apparent on Facebook, LinkedIn, school events, and medical organizations’ social gatherings. I once heard a clinical professor say to a lecture hall, “I don’t remember names but I do remember faces.”

That quote rang through my head as the nurse called my name. What would this mean for me?:

  • A few years from now when I am on a rotation, will the physician who walks through the exam room door remember my face among the multitude of patients she has seen?
  • Is it unreasonable for me to be concerned about my privacy?
  • What if it’s a medical student—a peer—walking through that door?
  • How should I expect to be treated?

A few months ago, I would have been proud to take part in the teaching process. Presently, a patient and medical student, I felt unsure of my role and what to expect.

Stepping out through clinic’s automatic doors I began wondering why medical schools don’t address what it will feel like to be a patient again after you take your first steps into the profession. Even in my pre-clinical years, I understand that the professionalism physicians hold themselves to dictates that students and colleagues are cared for in the same manner as all patients. Moreover, clinicians are likely aware of and address how vulnerable we, as individuals, can feel.

Still, this conversation is important for students. It can lead to the budding of an understanding on how to empathize and adequately care for a minority of patients: caregivers. More importantly, it can recognize our humanity, set expectations for how to reconcile our roles with our needs, and address concerns about stigmas we all are aware still exist in the profession.

Now, I cannot help wondering how many medical students’ lumps go unaddressed for too long, how many STD screenings and HIV tests get put off, addictions get hidden, or how many mental health concerns never see the light of day because we never hold the conversion in the context of ourselves as patients.

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