How to Impress Your Attending: Surgery Edition

Osmosis Team
Published on Feb 8, 2024. Updated on Feb 9, 2024.

Welcome to your new surgery clerkship! To help you thrive during your clinical rotations, we're sharing practical, hands-on advice from experienced medical professionals to help you make the most of your surgery rotation.

Your surgery rotation is unique and exciting in comparison to your other rotations because you get to go to the operating room (OR)! This experience is your chance to stand out among your peers, but it can also be overwhelming if you're new to surgery. Fear not! Here's a guide to help you navigate your surgical rotation seamlessly.     

Learn How to Scrub In 

Make sure to learn how to scrub in and adhere to the different rules and strict sterility protocols. Don't hesitate to ask questions – it's better to ask and learn than compromise sterility. The good news is that it will soon become second nature! 

Engage With Your Attending  

The OR is a great place to engage with your attendings and ask them questions about the case that they're presenting. To get the most out of these conversations, make it a habit to review relevant anatomy before each case. To go above and beyond, try to understand the surgical indication for the case you are observing.

Don't Forget to Introduce Yourself  

Before the surgery, proactively introduce yourself to the patient. Surgery can be scary for patients, and seeing a friendly face can be very comforting – and your attending will notice! While in the operating room, also introduce yourself to any nurses, scrub technicians, or other staff who might not know you.

Stay Present and Pay Attention  

During the case, be sure to be in the moment. Pay attention. Engage with your attending by asking questions about the ongoing case. Don't shy away from speaking up and expressing your interest in getting involved, whether it's helping with retraction, suturing, or other tasks. Medical students are often integral to surgical procedures, including helping with retraction or cutting sutures. Perhaps your time to shine can also be suturing at the end of the case.

Practice Suturing  

Speaking of suturing, ask to be taught this crucial skill and proactively practice outside the OR. It takes a lot of focus and hard work to get it right, which will be reflected positively in your performance during the case. The more eager you are and the more your attendings see you practicing and improving, the more responsibility they'll give you. A variety of educational videos are available online, and we recommend reviewing these before your cases. Additional resources are available to practice suturing on phantom tissue, but you can also practice on household items or even foods like fruit or meat! 

Study for your shelf exams using our handy surgery-specific study schedule.

Make Sure to Ask Questions  

Do your best not to feel intimidated when your attending asks you questions during a case. It can be overwhelming initially, but try to see it as an opportunity to learn something new! It's also a good idea to "take the temperature of the room" (e.g., get a sense of the mood and situation) before asking questions. If the surgeon is at a difficult point in the case, it's probably best to hold the question until the end.  

Get to Know Your Patients  

One of the best things you can do is take the time to genuinely get to know your patients. Follow their entire continuum of care, including preoperative workup, intraoperative surgical procedures, and postoperative care. It allows you to get to know your patients, their disease process, and indicated treatments. Plus, the more you know about the individual case, the more impressed your attending will be!

Read Up and Review Your Cases at Home  

Read up on diseases you encounter during your rotation when you get home. This extra effort will equip you with insightful questions and topics to discuss with your attending, showcasing your commitment to ongoing learning.  

Stay Confident, Offer to Help  

Surgery tends to be fast-paced, with a bunch of busy people moving in multiple directions. Don't let it overwhelm you. Be confident, proactive, and always ask how you can assist the surgical team. Helping could include assisting with dressing changes, looking up lab values, or reviewing imaging results.  

Build a Relationship with the Nurses  

Engage with and build a rapport with nurses in the OR and on the floors. They can help guide you through your rotation, offer valuable guidance, make sure you're scrubbing up correctly, update you on a patient's condition, and share practical advice to enhance your clerkship experience.  

In the end, mastering your surgery rotation requires a blend of knowledge, skills, and proactive engagement (with a big emphasis on preparation and engagement). Follow these tips, and you'll impress your attending while making the most of this unique and exciting experience in the operating room. 

About the Authors 

Cindi Payne, MD, is a Clinical Content Editor at Osmosis by Elsevier and a surgeon, practicing rural general surgery for four years. She trained in New York City and spent a year in Montana getting extra training in rural surgery. Outside of Osmosis by Elsevier, she provides general surgical care to a small community. She lives with her husband and their three boys in northern Michigan, where she owns and operates a U-pick blueberry farm. 

Samuel Butensky, MD, is a Medical Question Writer at Osmosis by Elsevier and a PGY3 resident in general surgery pursuing a career in surgical oncology. Originally from New Jersey, he went to medical school in New York and currently lives in Connecticut with his wife. Outside of Osmosis by Elsevier, he is an avid runner and espresso aficionado.  

Stephanie Stevens is the Brand Marketing Lead at Osmosis from Elsevier.