Oct 22, 2019
A medical student shares her best tips for keeping perspective and connecting with patients while out on clinical clerkship.
“Hi, my name is Sarina and I’m a medical student.”
Medical trainees are all too familiar with this sentence, repeating it dozens and dozens of times in a day. We use it when we first meet teachers, staff physicians, residents, nurses and other medical students who we will be working with for the day or for a few days’ time during our clinical rotations. We use this introduction when we meet patient after patient in a given day.
This colors healthcare with a human touch, which is important as diagnosis, treatment, and care planning relies heavily on our ability to connect with the patient and to easily exchange information with them. It also makes the patient feel truly cared for, starting to trust us when they know exactly who we are.
For people who enjoy connecting with others, these numerous encounters can be fun. There is something quite exciting to me about being able to put a face and a personality to the file that I have just read before meeting a patient in person. I remember a face, a conversation with a patient, and their attitude a lot more than their objective identity as “a 60-year-old M/F with hypertension” for example. Through clinical interactions with colleagues, you also experience the privilege of bonding with local, hardworking, healthcare professionals, and often learn a lot from them.
However, there are also some downsides that come with the infinite encounters in medical school. Your single interaction with a patient on a rotation, especially when there are time constraints, may provide a lot less information than a long term one, and you may not be able to help them as much as you would like to. Then, when you are interacting with staff, having to re-introduce yourself every day to many different people and only having a brief time to connect with them makes first impressions highly valuable, as they are usually the only impressions that you have with these people. You often don’t have time to get to know them, and they don’t have time to really get to know you.
All of this, compounded by the essentially random nature of the team-making process, makes clerkship such that sometimes you hit it off with the people you meet and other times, you simply do not. Every medical trainee is likely to have at least one unfavourable encounter over the course of their training.
There is this unwritten expectation of “having to impress everybody you meet” in medical school that I think we need to talk about more. Given the time constraints of our rotations and the volume of people we meet, I think we need to be kinder with ourselves and realize that this isn’t always a realistic goal. We can, however, push ourselves to do the best job we can in making these encounters as positive as possible and hope recognition follows.
Here are a few ways I try to do so:
Be polite and be kind. Basic human decency goes a long way in the workforce and I’ve noticed that it is often noticed by my preceptors and patients. It’s often as simple as holding a door or recognizing another person’s feelings.
Be humble. Don’t be afraid to ask questions to your preceptors about what their expectations are of you at the beginning of your time with them, and always ask them if it is OK to do something that you haven’t discussed with them beforehand.
Work hard. Always put in as much research as you can when preparing to meet patients. Do a thorough history and physical examination to have an informed impression of what the situation is and make a plan for the patient on your own time with some research before meeting with your supervisor. That way, when they ask you “what do you think we should do?” you will be prepared.
Best of luck on your clinical rotations!
Sarina Lalla is a 2nd year medical student at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. She is currently in the first few months of her clinical clerkship venturing across Quebec and Ontario on different rotations. She is interested in specializing in community family medicine to build lasting connections with her patients and to integrate a high amount of hands-on variety into her practice. Fittingly, given her surname, Sarina is passionate about music. She plays the ukulele and piano, and sings solo in acapella groups and in choirs. You can often find her at local concerts and at record shops, collecting used vinyl.