The other day I was sitting on the beach thinking about had I not taken a year off of medical school I would have been sitting through my first cardio-physiology lectures. If there is confusion as to where I would have rather been at that moment know that I agree with my father who quips “the only problem with the ocean is that you get wet.” Eventually I started considering whether my time away from medical school was a waste of time and/or whether I had significantly delayed my medical education. These are questions I fully anticipate someday having to answer for professionally (i.e. residency interviews).
In an admittedly grim train of thought I considered how some may frown on my situation as I haven’t appreciably added to my CV during this leave of absence (LOA). Sure, I’ve started a few projects, went to DDW and would love to attend AASLD in November (excuse to visit my sister again 🙂 ) but going to conferences without a presentation as an early medical student is arguably not worth the money. What finally hit me was the rather obvious realization that medicine is as much an art as it is a science. You see my scientific side immediately sought quantifiable surrogate markers of a productive LOA but I had failed to consider the less objective characteristic that I think makes a great physician. The art of connecting to patients.
Throughout the world undergraduate medical students learn about science and evaluating complex medical conditions but also less objective things such as interviewing patients, practicing empathy, interacting with individuals other cultures or belief systems etc. These classes have their role but they’re formulaic and if you have ever been examined by a medical student then you probably know that simultaneously thinking about disease processes and a physical exam you just learned all the while trying to be empathetic takes practice, years of practice.
Being a great physician takes walking through the highs and lows of life with patients not just professionally but connecting with them on a personal level regardless of their status in life at that moment. During this time off I have seen and begun to further appreciate this rare characteristic from physicians I will try to emulate in specialties ranging from trauma surgeons to family practice doctors. To me it makes sense that medicine remains a final vestige of true apprenticeship based learning through residency and fellowship where ideally we begin practicing the art of human connection. Ultimately no matter how prestigious of a medical school, residency or fellowship training someone completes (or the age at which you complete them) they will not be loved by their patients unless they are a human first.
This year I’ve lived through some of the highs and lows in life that most in my position have only read about or seen peripherally during shadowing experiences. I’ve talked and learned from real patients who, like me, endure physical pain, surgery and extended hospitalizations while facing less quantifiable manifestations of disease like fear, frustration, disappointment, and uncertainty. I’ve gained some insight as to what other patients actually care about and want from their physician. Every day I learn from tech savvy physicans throughout the world of the power of appropriate social media use as a fruitful medium to connect, educate and allow groups of patients to voice very real frustration as they desperately seek answers. I think that my detour from formal medical education, no matter the circumstances, has made me more human and paradoxically has gone further toward making me a better physician then had I attended every lecture on connecting with patients.
So what do you think? Does it matter if medical students take a year off for non academic reasons?