Doctors learn through mistakes during medical school

In most other professions, once you’re halfway through your education, you begin to develop confidence; slowly, but surely, fitting into shoes that once seemed too big for your petite, newbie feet. Not so in medicine.

Three years into it, and I still feel unsure – unsure of the answer to a rather simple question asked by an attending and unsure of whether I’m fit to be doing this in the first place. However, in those quiet moments of much needed soul-searching, a small voice inside me says yes, you are capable. Many of you will recognize the all-too-familiar faltering of conviction when asked a question that you think you know the answer to – you’re pretty sure, but not a 100% sure; it just seems like an instinctual regurgitation. Most of the time, self-doubt wins the battle and you keep quiet, avoiding eye contact with the attending, only to experience the even more familiar sensation of your heart falling all the way down to your feet (please excuse the medically inaccurate, nay, medically impossible, metaphor), thinking I knew that. What’s harder is trying, in the hope of applying a band-aid on the bleeding ego, to convince your peers that you actually did know the answer.

I have often wondered what it is that makes usually confident people act so meekly, and it eventually struck me – it’s medicine itself. In no other profession are you so directly and immediately responsible for your actions, your reactions and your mistakes. A mistake here doesn’t lead to disappointment; it leads, in the direst cases, to death. Although it is necessary to know the impact and the consequences of your actions, it is also necessary to not let yourself be paralyzed by the fear that accompanies this responsibility.

And where do you learn how to do that? Right here in medical school. A mistake here, at worst, means a dirty look from your attending and a round of ragging from your peers. Now who wouldn’t take that over the loss of someone’s life? Make all the mistakes you can while there is someone willing to correct them, because that’s how you learn. Nothing teaches like an attending’s rant about your ineptitude, usually right in front of the patient you were hoping to impress with your knowledge. And that is how you will gain the confidence to give the correct answer, not to your attending, but to the question in your own mind, about the best treatment modality for Patient X, when there is no one else to shoulder your responsibility and no room for mistakes.

Yes, those shoes still seem too big, and your feet still seem too small. But you’ll grow into them. And give those wings a try. If you fall, it’ll be into a safety net, and if you don’t, you’ll learn how to fly.

Irma Faruqi is a medical student. 

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