6 guiding principles as you enter medical school

Dear Jane:

Thank you for asking me about my perspectives on medical school. Here are some general principles that you might find useful in your own training:

1. View everyone as your teacher. Everyone you encounter will teach you something. Be open to what they have to offer.

Yes, your professors and attendings, the “official” teachers, will educate you. Patients, however, will often be your best teachers. Listen to what they say, watch how they react to what you do, and acknowledge and accept the feedback they give to you. Their teachings are often the most useful and valuable.

You might see a physician condescending to a patient and decide that you never want to do that. You might see a nurse offer quiet comfort to a patient and decide that you want to mimic that manner. You might witness a technician help a patient feel less anxious before a procedure and decide that you will steal that technique. You might talk to a physician on the phone and decide that you will adopt that professional and kind manner when you talk to other physicians.

In this way you can be a student for life.

2. Reflect on your experiences every day. This can take many forms: You can keep a journal. You can talk with friends. You can meditate. You can go for a ten-minute walk around your neighborhood. You can sit in a chair and stare out the window. It doesn’t have to be a big thing.

Reflecting on your experiences will help consolidate what you learn so you can apply that knowledge in the future. This applies to “book” knowledge (physiology, pharmacology, etc.) and “non-book knowledge” (how to redirect a patient or your colleague, how to manage your emotions in the face of disease and death, etc.).

There will be times when you will feel overwhelmed and cannot or choose not to reflect. That’s okay. It happens.

3. You will see terrible things. You will see people suffer. You will see people die. You will hear hospital staff say derogatory things about patients. You will see your colleagues lie about things they should not lie about. You will see everyone—the patient, nurses, doctors, technicians, family members—work as hard as they can and none of it will help the patient. You will see people who need help, but don’t want it.

Remember the discomfort you feel when you see things you don’t like. These experiences are your teachers, too. They will help you stay human and humane. Medical training can steal that from us.

4. You will do terrible things. You yourself will do things you will not like. (Hopefully infrequently.) You will snap at patients. You will be snarky to staff. You will bend the truth, if not lie, because you won’t know what else to do.

You must reflect on these events so they don’t become habits.

5. Connect with physicians who do not work in academic centers. Some physicians in the community will have practice patterns and work in systems that will appall you. Some will inspire you. While academic medicine does happen in the “real world”, it’s often different from what is in the community.

Exposing yourself to the non-academic world will help you learn about a greater variety of patients, creative and innovative developments in health care, and provide more context about medical care in the world. Even if you end up working in an academic center, these experiences will shape your practice.

6. After you decide what kind of doctor you want to be, take rotations in every other specialty. Medicine is compartmentalized, but people are not. Your patient with high blood pressure may become pregnant … develop a painless red eye … fracture a bone … have her gall bladder taken out … or develop an alcohol problem. Learning about a variety of conditions will help you take care of people, not just diseases.

The most useful guiding principle for me during my training (and now) is to remember that your work is to take care of the patient. It’s not about the letters after your name, long titles, or how big your salary is. Medicine isn’t about you. It’s about the patient. That attitude will keep you humble, curious, and grateful.

Congratulations on your admission to medical school! May you find the work rewarding and meaningful.

Maria Yang is a psychiatrist who blogs at her self-titled site, Maria Yang, MD.

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  • EmilyAnon

    As a patient, reading your recommendations to new medical students gives me confidence that there will be many good doctors available in the years to come. (providing they follow your advice, of course :-)

  • NPPCP

    7. Others will do things you do not like. Patients will snap at you. Staff will be snarky to you. It’s also part of your daily life as a member of the healthcare team.

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