Aside from the look of paranoia and confusion on our faces, we medical students can also be identified by our badges, which have “MEDICAL STUDENT” printed on them in large bold letters. As the joke goes, the badge isn’t as much for identification purposes as it is a warning label for the hospital staff and patients.
For a patient, it can be a hard reality to swallow that a medical student is a member of his or her care team. Over the past year, more than a few patients have told me that they have sons my age and that the prospect of me caring for them is understandably unnerving. In their minds, the same kid that just moved out of his parent’s basement is now choosing which antibiotic to use to treat their pneumonia. But that would be using the wrong lens to view our role. Instead of taking away from patient care, we add an extra layer of care. We’re supplementary, not deletory.
Luckily, most patients are generous enough to allow us to treat them and even perform certain procedures on them. But I’ve often asked myself whether I would do the same — if one day I become a patient, would I allow a medical student to be on my team knowing how little we know?
There is an unfair asymmetry to the doctor-patient relationship. As a patient, you’re perhaps among twenty patients at any time being treated by the attending. And though that UTI or fever may have upended your entire world, in the attending’s eyes you’re no different than the other patients who come to the emergency room.
Yet to us medical students, you’re likely only one of three patients who we’re taking care of at any single time. That devoted attention combined with our medical naiveté will push us to great lengths to ensure that you receive the best care possible. We’ll search the recent issues of medical journals for the latest cutting-edge treatment for your illness, even if it’s the run-of-the-mill flu or chest pain. We’ll meticulously sift through your medication list and make sure that you have no contraindication for any drugs. And while we’re at it, we’ll check in on you multiple times during the day — and you can be sure that the team will know any change in your vitals or increased pain level or even new onset constipation.
In fact, we medical students are more familiar with you, both as a patient and as a person, than the resident and the attending. We’ll know precisely the results of your lab tests, what drug allergies you have, and why you were admitted to the hospital three years ago — because we had the time to read all of your previous medical notes.
What’s more, we’ll also know your dog’s name, where you grew up, and how many grandchildren you have. To have a medical student on your team means you’ll have an extra visitor during the day, an extra companion to talk to when the nurses and residents are too busy.
We all fear that a medical error will come from the doctors-in-training, but rest assured. Though medical students can propose treatment courses that can affect your treatment course, the attending and resident must first carefully vet them. And any orders must be initially approved before they can be carried out.
So next time you end up at a hospital, be not afraid and make a request for a team with a medical student.
Stanford Medicine Unplugged is a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week during the academic year; the entire blog series can be found in the Stanford Medicine Unplugged category.
Steven Zhang is a third-year medical student at Stanford. When he’s not cramming for his next exam, you can find him on a run around campus or exploring a new hiking trail.
Photo, of incoming medical students in 2015, by Norbert von der Groeben