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Three Things I Wish I Learned In Medical School

Jun 03, 2024

Medical school was definitely an eye-opening experience. I worked hard pretty much all my life, and medical school topped all the other years of schooling. While I learned a lot in medical school, there were things I wished they taught, instead of me discovering and learning later as an attending physician. I believe that if medical students were taught these things, they would be better physicians with less stress and overwhelm.

The first thing is time management. It was as if a skill that every physician should have mastered magically at some point before graduating medical school. It was a steep learning curve from medical school to residency training, mainly due to the different mode of learning. We were learning with real patients, real lives. Even though the trainees were not in charge, we would not want to make any mistakes which would have caused any negative outcomes.

Physicians were expected to complete the tasks that were assigned to them. If you have fifteen patients to see in the hospital, you are expected to see all of them, take care of their needs by talking to them, evaluating them, talk to the families sometimes, ordering the necessary medications and tests. If you are not good at prioritizing your tasks, it is easy to get flustered and work extra hours.

Besides prioritizing tasks, time management also includes the ability to focus well while you are doing something, and the power to resist the temptation of distractions. As the field of medicine is very unpredictable, unexpected things may happen to anyone at anytime. Time management includes quickly identifying who and what to deal with first. When a curve ball is thrown at you, you quickly decide if that is something you need to take care of first, or to continue doing what you were doing.

Distractions may be external, such as patient phone calls, email notifications; or internal, such as your mind somehow wandering off to thinking about a social media post while you are writing a patient’s chart. The more you can focus on doing one thing at a time, and the less you are distracted, the more efficient you become. The actual skills of how to optimize these are something I wish I was taught in medical school. I think this will decrease the extra hours spent to finish your charts or other administrative tasks after hours. This will also decrease some of the stress and overwhelm physicians experience.

The second thing I wish I was taught in medical school was the financial expect of medicine. This would be particularly useful for physicians who plan to own their practice. Topics such as the medical system, reimbursement structures, health insurance logistics, how physicians actually get paid – theses are all important topics to learn, yet they were not taught when I was in medical school. I just assumed all I had to do was to work hard, see the patients, and somehow I would be compensated. For the most part, that was true in the world of corporate medicine, as an employed physician – unless you do not bill for your services.

Other aspects of the business of medicine, such as when to hire another physician or a nurse practitioner, or other staff members are also important to know in order to have a thriving medical practice. There is a medium between overworking or under-utilizing a physician or the staff.

The other aspect of finance I wish I learned was what to do with the money I earned. How much to save, how much to spend for my own pleasure, and how much (and what) to invest. I think many physicians will be happier and enjoy medicine more if they are practicing in their own terms and not for the sake of the financial compensation they receive.

The third thing I wish I was taught in medical school was self-care. I had no concept of taking care of myself was an important thing. The teaching was always to put the patients first. That, to me, implied that I was not first. In fact, I took it as I was not important, and put myself last. Somehow I did not think that I had to take care of myself to maintain my health. My well-being was taken for granted. Until I was physically ill.

The concept that self-care is not selfish came as a foreign idea to me not too long ago. Then I realized that, if I did not take good care of myself, I would not be in the best condition to take great care of my patients. It is important to take care of ourselves physically, with adequate sleep, a healthy diet and exercise. Taking care of our mental health is also very important. To be mindful of what we are thinking and feeling, to be able to consciously choose what to focus on thinking are some ways to keep our mental health in check. The idea that it is our perspective or our belief of a situation that affects our emotions is really a transformational realization. As we have the power to manage our thoughts, we have more power than we realize. We get to decide what to think in any given situation.

Some of my oncology patients have really mastered this well. Advanced cancer is a serious diagnosis, and oftentimes devastating news to the patients and their families. Yet there are patients who are grateful – not for their diagnosis, but for other things they appreciate, such as their medical team, their tolerance to treatment, or their family’s love. On the other hand, another patient with the same diagnosis may focus on how he should not have had this diagnosis, argue with reality, blame everything and everyone, and feel angry, frustrated and helpless.

Every day is a new day with new things to learn. If we can teach medical students how to manage their time better, more about money, and taking care of themselves, less physicians will experience burnout. The medical system is no doubt still in need of an overhaul. Until then, if these three things are learned earlier in life, then the physicians’ physical and mental health will be better managed. Patient care will also benefit from it.

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