The duties of medical students are somewhat limited as the main goal of medical school is to observe and learn as much as possible. Medical students must be “sponges”, but the limitation that they can’t yet organize and fully care for their patients. The transformation to residency is therefore quite a shock and can be rather difficult because it involves a plethora of new challenges that are inspiring, exhausting, revealing about one’s self and truly exhilarating all at once. Here are a few tips to make residency training a successful one.
The long hours can literally beat residents down both mentally and physically, but it is critical to remain strong, focused and respectful of the patients who will be under their care. They always deserve the attention that is needed even if that means staying awake for many hours. Being responsible for people’s lives is a real privilege that should never be taken for granted. This is why dependability is probably the most important trait of an outstanding resident. Residents must know everything there is to know about their patients from their laboratory values to their family history and risk factors for various diseases. But it is also critically important to be completely honest, for example when asked about a certain laboratory value that was forgotten during a surgical procedure in the operating room or on rounds. There is no place for “inventing” an answer. Attending physicians and senior residents rely on the truth. Patients do as well.
The opportunity of a lifetime
Despite the physical and mental challenges of residency, the opportunity to soak up the remarkable knowledge that permeates the walls of the hospital is extraordinary –learning by osmosis! In fact, it is a sort of enlightenment and I can honestly say there is nothing more enriching and exciting than to partake in morning rounds and learn from direct experience how to care for a patient, handle a complex medical problem and provide comfort to patients through effective therapies. Didactics are great but nothing can replace the live experience of interacting with patients and their family members. The memories of taking care of a patient for a specific condition will forever be anchored in the resident’s brain and the knowledge gained from such an experience will resurface years later when it will be most needed.
Be prepared, listen and be resilient
Medical school may have been an intense learning experience but it pales in comparison to the rigor of residency training. Simply stated, one must be always prepared to answer questions from anyone, anywhere, at any moment, from morning rounds to a patient’s room. Some of these questions can be extremely difficult to answer and being “book smart” may not be enough. Empathy and compassion are key components of being a physician. Such character traits require the resident to listen to the attending physicians and even more importantly to the patients. The art of listening to patients is one that is in serious need of revitalization especially in this era of maximization of healthcare efficiency and output. Lessons from my residency training are still with me and are a constant reminder to listen to patients because the most valuable information comes directly from them. They may mention something inadvertently that is not on their chart that could literally change the course of their care. So it is critically important to always pay attention.
Being prepared, always on alert to learn, listen and capture some information are important but so is being resilient, especially in the face of the long work hours and emotional toll of residency. Quiet confidence in oneself, without arrogance, combined with self-motivation and hunger for knowledge are key aspects of what makes a great resident.
In the end, it is always important to remind oneself that even though the days are long and life as a resident can be incredibly challenging, residency is the fulfillment of one’s life dream to be a physician, care for the sick and master the “art” of medicine.