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An introvert in medicine: Taking the plunge

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SMS (“Stanford Medical School”) Unplugged is a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week; the entire blog series can be found in the SMS Unplugged category

Does the profession of medicine favor certain personality types over others?

When I was younger, it seemed like all of my doctors were gregarious, self-confident, and humorous, leaving me to wonder if one can “make it” in medicine without being outgoing. This seemed a natural consequence of the fact that so much of medicine is team-based and demands constant interpersonal interaction with colleagues and patients. For many introverts, a career in which a substantial amount of time is spent interacting with complete strangers — often in a deeply personal context — might seem like an odd choice.

Indeed, my experience in medical school so far has lived up to this idea in many ways. Group learning has been a fixture of our curriculum since day one, as has the fabled tradition of being put on the spot and quizzed by teachers in front of peers. Networking is still the preferred method for finding research opportunities. And the famous learning philosophy of “see one, do one, teach one” has been jarring for me as somebody who likes to take time for deliberation and reflection — a bit like being pushed out of an airplane at 10,000 feet.

All of this would suggest that extroverts might be at an advantage during medical school. And yet, it’s undeniable that a great many people who do not identify this way survive, and even thrive, in medicine, suggesting that there is hope for the rest of us.

For me, one of the most helpful aspects has been the formation of strong relationships during school. Having slowly built my own “team” of classmates, faculty, and mentors over the last several months, the pressure of the more challenging moments of medical school has been eased by our mutual respect and understanding. Being pushed out of the airplane isn’t so bad when you’re strapped to an expert skydiver who is looking out for you.

Sometimes, though, it’s not possible to rely on those relationships. When I have only a few minutes to perform a full exam on a new patient, I’ve had to learn to trust my own strengths. I might not win over patients with personable charm and witty humor, but I've found that a warm, but quiet, steadiness can achieve a similar level of connection. I’ve been encouraged to find that there are many different ways to make the personal connection that allows us as doctors to improve the health of our patients.

In fact, this has been one of the most important lessons that I’ve learned so far: learn from others, but don’t feel like you need to be just like them. Instead of worrying about whether I have what it takes to become that funny, charming doctor I had when I was growing up, I’ve begun to chart my own path. This takes time, support, and even some discomfort – but then, like jumping out of an airplane, who ever said that learning to be a doctor was easy?

Nathaniel Fleming is a first-year medical student and a native Oregonian. His interests include health policy and clinical research.

Photo by Lachlan Rogers

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