What have we lost with the progress of medical training?

Every third-year has heard it: “When I was in your position, I was taking 24-hour calls every other night. If my resident was there, I was there …”

We’re regaled about the glory days, without shelf exams, without phlebotomists, and — by God — without those work-hour restrictions. The days when medical students wouldn’t dare ask their residents for help, or residents their chiefs, or chiefs their attendings, and so on. I hear a bit of romance: The heroism of providing total patient care, exactly when the patient needed it, unfettered by handoffs or outside interference. I envy the skill required to practice medicine almost literally in one’s sleep.

As the veteran doc continues his (yes, usually his) soliloquy, he may admit that it wasn’t the safest model for patients or the most humane for trainees. He may today be a better doctor for it, but he’s a bit ambivalent about whether it should remain exactly the same today. Presumably he wasn’t alone, because since the good ol’ days, the third year of medical school has morphed into something barely recognizable.

Now, rather than arriving before our residents and leaving after, our time is protected in many ways. We have lecture days devoid of patient care, service-learning commitments, and other activities designed to expand our learning beyond the hospital’s four walls. We have shelf exams demanding a much broader scope of knowledge than a typical day on the floor. Occasionally we’re granted a bit of time to study for said exams. Sometimes, we even have weekends.

This is progress, in many ways. Teachers with the right training are supervising patient care. We’re gaining exposure to ambulatory care, where the bulk of American medicine takes place. We’re acquiring the research skills to practice up-to-date medicine as it evolves, rather than learning from sheer repetition. We’re learning how to communicate humanistically and practice ethically. And, in fits and starts, each generation is learning a bit more about how the many pieces of the health care system fit together.

But I wonder how much has also been lost. Residents’ duties have gone from the bedside to the computer, where information flows in and orders stream out. We can round on vitals and labs at the nurses’ station without ever laying eyes (let alone hands) on the patient. Nurses, phlebotomists, and other members of the workforce have taken over so much of what we formerly called patient care  — that in turn has evolved from a tactile task to a cognitive one. It’s no surprise that medical students’ experience has followed suit. By the end of a clerkship, we can rattle off pathology, pharmacology, and differential diagnoses till even the attendings fall asleep — but heaven forbid we’re asked to start a difficult IV. I worry I’ll end up in a new generation of well-read, friendly, ethical, system-conscious doctors who’ve learned the textbook but forgotten the patient.

As a student, the times when I’ve lacked longitudinal patient contact have been the most taxing. The hours spent chasing labs and consults or rounding at the nurses’ station are the ones that leave me wondering what medicine has become. And I have to ask if the apparent epidemic of physician burnout is really about too little human contact rather than too many hours on the floors. Some have decided that rather than returning to patient care, we should be learning on simulators instead. But to me, that would represent the pendulum swinging even farther away from those we must eventually serve. Lest the establishment forgets, we will someday be treating patients rather than machines and multiple-choice problems. Will we be ready?

Karan Chhabra is a medical student who blogs at Project Millenial. He can be reached on Twitter @KRChhabra.

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