The anatomical position of the typical medical student is sitting in front of a laptop, left hand on the spacebar, right hand on a coffee cup (most likely with another three close by), both eyes glued intently on the Anki flashcards that whiz by in front of them. There are anatomical variants of course. Occasionally, you may find a medical student with their head in their hands in a little corner of the library instead. Apparently, there are also medical students smiling happily, taking notes in a lecture (according to the brochure that the medical schools hand out at the start of every academic year), but my PubMed/Medline searches turn up zero results for medical students both happy and in a lecture (always a red flag for my understanding of the Boolean operators). 

If you examine the interior of the cranial vault, you will find several plexuses of scattered factoids and caffeine-addled ramblings. Look for too long and you will start to get lost in the tangle of acid-base balance and the TCA cycle. Listen for too long and you will start to hear the whispering: “high-yield”, one voice exclaims; “more mandatory lectures?”, another trails off exasperatedly. It is in this stress-riddled mess that you will find all of the understandings from the last Physeo lecture and the semi-retained Anki facts. The internal clock (which I think is in the suprachiasmatic nucleus, but that lecture was over a month ago, so I guess we’ll never truly know) is blaring a single message “GO TO SLEEP”, but another sip of coffee and the clock is snoozed for the fifteenth time in a row.

Yes, these descriptors probably fit 98% of medical students perfectly (wow check out that sensitivity… or is it PPV?). But there are another set of criteria that the quintessential medical student should fit. The criteria that determines the ability of that student to properly care for their patients and be the best intern they can be. 

  • Compassion and empathy

Sugar and spice and everything nice? Maybe not all the time. Compassion and empathy? Definitely always. Patients rely on their doctors not just to provide them with the best care possible, but also to be a passionate advocate for them when necessary. Patients often spend the most time with interns rather than attendings and fellows, and so need their intern to deeply understand not only their pathology, but also their story. Interns are often the ones who relate the patient’s illnesses and treatments to their personal lives – is that falls patient really suitable for hydrotherapy if they had that near-drowning experience as a child? Understanding the patient’s background and having compassion is crucial for all doctors but is particularly important for interns, and is a trait you have to actively develop in medical school.

  • Patience for patients 

Well, not just patience. I just really like the ‘patience for patients’ line. The key point is really just to never forget to keep the patient at the centre of your entire medical career. It becomes easy with time to want to rush through the patient history and examination as quickly as possible because of the immense workload that junior doctors are often under, but it becomes difficult to develop compassion and empathy for patients that way. Instead, spend as much time as you can listening to the patient’s concerns and expectations. Developing your patience and focus on the patient will only ultimately lead to better outcomes and your patients getting the care they deserve.

  • Work ethic

Throughout my first three years of medical school, I have been constantly reminded of the fact that the learning does not end after my final year. Professional development, the Step 3 exam, and just the normal day-to-day learning as you specialise requires a special kind of work ethic. When we signed up for medical school, we knew we would need to work hard, but I’m sure the need for this dedication to continuous self-improvement has surprised at least a few of us. If you haven’t developed a good work ethic by now in medical school, maybe now is the time to start. 

  • Ethics ethic

Doctors are often held in very high regard by the public for their integrity, moral compass and virtues. It’s up to us to meet those high expectations. So pay attention to the ‘soft lectures’, even if the content is dry and monotonous. If the chance arises in a tutorial, throw yourself into an ethical discussion, and try to see all the viewpoints being raised. You’ll find all that information useful when you come to fill in those tedious ethics applications for your research – and you never know, you might need to sit in front of an ethics board someday. 

  • Reflection

They say a reflective practitioner is a successful and content practitioner. I say a reflective practitioner is the only kind of practitioner. Reflect on your difficult experiences with patients. Did you meet an angry patient, did you have a particularly emotional interaction with a patient, were you in an awkward situation with a patient? Reflect on your own shortcomings and weaknesses. Did you score less on that test than you were hoping? Did you feel as though you keep making bad impressions on your attendings? Process your thoughts, instead of bottling them up. Work through the issues you have and try to find solutions to them. Identify your strengths and how you might develop them. Without this reflection, even the hardest working of medical students can get stuck in a rut that they can’t seem to get themselves out of. So practice deep and meaningful reflection.

  • Rest and relaxation

Being a medical student is difficult. Being an intern is even harder. Not only do you have to juggle your duties as a doctor and your continued learning/professional development, you also need to try maintain a social life and fulfil your day-to-day duties and chores. With so much to manage it’s no wonder burnout is such a problem for medical students and junior doctors. It’s important to make time in this busy schedule (as much as you can afford) for your own hobbies and interests. Mine is baking. If yours is exercising, reading or even just watching Netflix, so be it. Take some time to destress – it doesn’t just feel good, but it’s also almost necessary for your long-term, continued success. Check out my other blog here if you want some authentic Australian tips for rest and relaxation.

  • Develop a support network

Further to the previous point, a good support network is just as important as knowing how to rest and relax. So make excuses to catch up with old college friends, and stay in very close touch with your family. Make sure you have some non-medical people in your life who you can lean on if you ever need it. Also check in on your medical friends from time to time to see how they’re doing. Looking after your peers in your support network is just as important as looking after yourself – you’re all in this together, after all.

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