[ACP IMpact] Medical Student Perspective: 10 Tips for Making the Most of Medical School

Since starting medical school a year ago, this website has become relatively silent. I’ve struggled with finding enough time to write for myself and for this blog. I’ve intentionally avoided reflecting on what it’s like to be a medical student here, because there’s just so much to say and so much that I’m still trying to figure out for myself. The American College of Physicians’ Internal Medicine Newsletter for Medical Students (ACP’s IMpact) asked current medical students “What’s Your Top Ten?,” which prompted me to take a step back and distill all that I’ve learned into a list with words of advice for incoming medical students. Although I’ll admit I wrote this list largely for myself, I hoped that it may also be of use to others going through this journey into medicine.

Here it is! I’d love to hear your thoughts.

After my last examination as a first-year medical student, I couldn’t resist this opportunity to write about all that I’ve learned beyond the science and clinical practice of medicine. Medical school is a learning experience unlike any other—and I know that I’m just beginning to scrape the surface—but the first year really is an adjustment for everyone. I’ve thought a lot throughout the past 10 months about how much I have changed as a person, for better and for worse. Although this list is specifically for first-year medical students, I believe many of these tips will sustain me throughout the rest of medical school. My hope is that they may do the same for you.

1. Learn from those around you. 
In medical school, you find yourself surrounded by people you can learn from: your classmates, who have all done extraordinary things and pursued unique passions to be here by your side; your professors, who have a wealth of information that they want to share with you and not enough time to do so; and your mentors, who are eager to impart their wisdom and support you personally and professionally in your journey into medicine.

2. Practice what you preach. 
This isn’t easy, not in medical school nor in a lifelong practice of medicine. Physicians have alarmingly high rates of depression and one of the highest rates of suicide (1). Only 50% exercise weekly, and many physicians struggle with being overweight (2). If we expect it of our patients, it is only fair that we make an effort to embrace the healthy lifestyles that we encourage.

3. Minimize multitasking. 
This may seem counterintuitive to the fast-paced world in which we live, but I believe it’s more efficient to focus entirely on one thing at a time. Try turning off your phone while studying or closing your laptop in class. Make an effort to be mindful and to stay focused on the task at hand despite all the other thoughts that may be running through your mind. Experiment with studying in silence.

4. Be fully present. 
Our patients will come to us to share personal and intimate details about their bodies and their lives—the very least that we can do for them is to be fully present in each moment of our time with them. The art of immersing oneself in a moment comes from being attentive and listening with both your mind and your body; it’s something we should strive to practice as a physician, a student, and a human being.

5. Understand that time is of the essence. 
I’ve found that in medical school, I’ve become acutely aware of time like never before. You learn what it really means to make the most of every minute of the day: flipping through flashcards in the few minutes before class, squeezing in a workout just before the gym closes, or talking on the telephone with friends on your walk home. When you are flooded by information in medical school you may feel pressure to rush through all aspects of your life. Instead of caving to this pressure to rush through everything; try to identify ways to work more efficiently and use your newly found time to slow down and recharge your batteries.

6. Feel.
Whether it be journaling, meditating, or talking to a close friend about the whirlwind of emotions that you feel throughout medical school, take time to reflect on your experiences. One study found that 53% of medical students had burnout (3); just as a career in medicine can be emotionally draining, so, too, can its training. Reflection in some form will help you put these experiences in perspective and come to terms with the sometimes-exhausting nature of medicine.

7. Hold on to what you know.  
Everyone comes to medical school with some idea of who they are and the kind of person they want to be in their career, whether or not you know what kind of physician that may be. Take the time to hold on to what you know, pursue what you are already passionate about, and do the things that you enjoy. Maintain and even strengthen the support system that you already have of family, friends, and loved ones.

8. Explore what you don’t. 
Nevertheless, medical school will no doubt change you. Make the most of this inevitable transformation—embrace it. While holding on to what you know, make space for trying new activities, for learning about what you may never have heard about. Be open to new relationships with the people around you, who are all facing somewhat similar experiences. Let yourself be malleable.

9. Have faith in the system. 
There’s no doubt that medical school is stressful. There is an infinite amount of knowledge to acquire, and medicine is an ever-growing field that never ceases to challenge our thinking minds. Sometimes, it can be overwhelming. It can be a daunting task to think about the sheer amount of knowledge that there is to remember. But, in the end, rest assured that this is all part of the journey.

10. Remember, practicing medicine is a privilege. 
Amidst all that happens in medical school, it can sometimes be easy to forget just what a privilege it is to be a physician. The opportunity to gain this wealth of knowledge about the human body and to study medicine, to devote a lifetime to its practice, is an honor. Being there for people at their most vulnerable is a humbling experience; medicine is gratifying to those who strive to make it so.

The first year of medical school is a time to grow not only in your knowledge but also in your own identity. I know that I’ve taken only the first steps into the field and that there is so much more for me to learn, but, for now, these realizations are enough. I look forward to carrying them forward with me throughout the rest of my journey.

References 
1. Hays LR, Cheever T, Patel P. Medical student suicide, 1989-1994. Am J Psychiatry. 1996;153:553-5. [PMID: 8599405]
2. Medscape Physician Lifestyle Report 2012. Medscape. 2012. Accessed at http://www.medscape.com/features/slideshow/lifestyle/2012/public on July 17, 2015
3. Dyrbye LN, Massie FS Jr, Eacker A, Harper W, Power D, Durning SJ, et al.Relationship between burnout and professional conduct and attitudes among US medical students. JAMA. 2010;304:1173-80. [PMID: 20841530] doi:10.1001/jama.2010.1318

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