How to unite medical students in the preclinical and clinical years

The contrast between the first two years and last two years of medical school are unparalleled to any other graduate field of study. You progress through a period of relentless studying through case-based, team-based, and lecture-based curriculums for two years with very little, if any, patient interaction. Afterwards, the script flips and you’re staring nervously at your first patient trying to channel interpersonal skills that sat on the backburner during pre-clinical years. Tack on the responsibility of networking with residency directors, rotating away, and eventual residency interviews, and it becomes apparent that very little time was spent preparing a wide-eyed third-year student for the people-skills needed in clinical years.

This isn’t the fault of the medical school. Many programs rely on student-driven curriculum supplementation for students to acquire these interpersonal skills. This is usually accomplished through student interest groups, student-planned lecture series, or physician shadowing. While in medical school, attending student-organized community engagement events proved to be wildly successful in temporarily pulling my head out of the books. “Community engagement” was a fancy term for networking, and it allowed me the opportunity to leave the library for a reason other than food. In fact, I even planned a community engagement event, and I’m here to convey to you the benefits of doing so and some key considerations to account for when planning.

1. Find a need. At the medical school I attend, our campus is split into two sites. Pre-clinical students attend class at the main university, and clinical students at our affiliated hospital round approximately 60 miles away. As you can imagine, this distance also creates social distance between our pre-clinical and clinical students. Furthermore, pre-clinical students are unable to engage with the community surrounding the hospital and the physicians, administration, and health professionals with whom they will be working so closely. A great way to engage pre-clinical students is to host a networking event at the clinical site. Even if your medical school is not a split campus, facilitating a time for this interaction can prove invaluable for pre-clinical students, clinical students, and attending physicians/administration.

2. Demonstrate the need. A networking night addressing this need benefits all involved. It opens an opportunity for pre-clinical students to ask questions to their older peers about rotations, talk with attending physicians about life after medical school, and meet hospital administration and community leaders that work so hard, often behind the scenes. Clinical students find value in spending time with attending physicians away from patients. Attending physicians, resident physicians, and administration find value in learning more about the students rotating in their hospital and community. Demonstrating this need can be done via email, social media, word of mouth, and formal flier advertisement.

3. Find sponsors. An absolute necessity for a community engagement event like this is to have food and drink. But this comes at a cost. Finding sponsors that would benefit from the publicity can help subsidize the cost. Offering recognition in welcome speeches is often a small ask in return for a small donation that helps cover the cost of food. Solicitations for sponsorship can be done over email or in-person, and sponsors can be hospitals, clinics, non-profits, and other prominent regional organizations in your community.

4. Advertise extensively. In a post-event survey, word-of-mouth was the most effective and wide-reaching method of advertisement for a community engagement event. This can be done via in-person announcements, emails, and spreading the word on social media. However, this should not replace the formal invitation (flier, invite card, etc.) that contains location, timing, and agenda of the evening. A sign-up web-based platform can be used to track attendance numbers for catering purposes.

5. Have event activities. The networking event should be organized, yet free for networking. Welcome speeches should be made, important guests should be thanked, and sponsors should be recognized. While the majority of the remaining time should be left for open conversations, it is recommended at least one activity be planned for guests. For examples, tours of facilities or a business card raffles are easy ways to engage guests.

In short, community engagement events should be a refreshing break from being buried in day-to-day tasks and the medical school curriculum. Networking at an event like this opens doors, puts your hard work in perspective, and forms relationships that can sometimes be career-lasting.

Michael Aljadah is a medical student.

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