As you enter medical school: tips from a patient

Since the beginning of a new academic year is fast approaching, here’s some heartfelt advice. You might need it, I hope you read it and heed it. If you’re just beginning your medical school journey, the first line is written specifically for you, but the rest of the piece is pertinent for any doctor, at any age and any stage of their careers.

If this is your first day of med school, welcome to the first day of the rest of your life. I know that’s an overused phrase, but every cliché has its root in truth. You’ll learn, and then you’ll earn. Before earning an income, one of the first things you’ll earn is the privilege of wearing a white lab coat. You’ll get well-deserved respect from that coat, but your patients, regardless of what they’re wearing, deserve respect too. The white lab coat is a visual reminder to everyone else, (and to yourself too, I guess), of what you’ve learned, but your patients’ garb won’t give you a visual clue as to their accomplishments. That means you’ll have to listen to them. How nice.
You’re entering unknown and perhaps scary territory. That’s true for any doctor, really. Outcomes are unknown, regardless if this is your first day of med school, or your last day practicing medicine. The unknown is part of life, isn’t it? Your confidence will grow the more you know, even knowing that you’ll have positive and negative surprises.

We all know what Facebook is, but I think you should formulate your perspective to “Face-look,“ as in, “Look at your patients, face to face.”

You’d be surprised how mutually comforting that could be. You might have patients who predate the origins of Facebook, and consequently, they might be all a-“Twitter” if they had to log on to a patient portal. Make sure you know if they have internet access, (and if they know how to use it) before you give them that option. If they’re not computer literate, you might suggest that they go to a local library, that would most likely have internet access and computer tutorial help.

There’s a hierarchy in medicine, often with doctors at the top of a pyramid. Try to reformulate that geometric shape to a straight line, with everyone on that line. It would be incredibly difficult to run a practice without your support staff: the receptionists, business office, other health care professionals, etc. Additionally, it would be impossible for you to have a medical practice without your patients (and your patience.) The more you have of the latter, the more you’ll have of the former.

You’ll be like a detective. A patient’s headache might be due to stress, a migraine, a brain tumor or any combination thereof. It’s up to you to decipher the cues and clues.

You’ll learn (or have learned) how to treat everything from appendicitis to zinc excess, but the most important thing you’ll learn (or have learned) is that “what” you treat isn’t as important as “whom” you treat and “how” you treat them. Patients might initially come to you for your IQ, (measurable intelligence), but they’ll come back to you for your EQ, (emotional intelligence). It means you know how to use your IQ.

I told a friend I went to a vein doctor, and I liked him, but she was surprised that I liked a “vain” doctor. Make sure you communicate clearly.

You’ll have days when you feel glory when you see things that are gory, and when a case will be so compelling it will be like a story. Learn from all of it.

Your non-medical friends will have a different interpretation of “gross” anatomy than you do, so please keep that in mind during dinner conversations.

Ask for help when you need it. It might be from colleagues, clergy, friends, family, etc. You can phone a friend as a lifeline, as they offered on the TV show, “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” John Donne said, “No man (or woman) is an island unto his or herself.” I view the word “island” as “I land.” Friends can keep you grounded, (grounded in the good sense), and help you land safely.

We all learn from each other. I have “doctored” recipes here and there, based on friends’ recipes, and they have done the same, based on mine. If it’s good enough for meatloaf, it’s good enough for me. A second opinion from a colleague doesn’t detract from your knowledge, it adds to it. So can information garnered from Dr. Google, based on the source. Collaboration and cooperation among your colleagues and patients is a wonderful thing, even if it doesn’t result in corroboration. Sometimes you might have to agree to disagree. I think we can all agree on that.

R. Lynn Barnett is the author of What Patients Want: Anecdotes and Advice and My Mother has Alzheimer’s and My Dog Has Tapeworms:  A Caregiver’s Tale. She can be reached on Twtter @rlynnbarnett1.

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