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In an era of ever-changing medical knowledge, starting medical school from scratch

Dedicating a year to research, a Stanford medical student comes to terms with temporarily falling behind the constant flood of medical information.

Apparently FitBits aren’t the saviors of health that their manufacturers advertised them to be. The Journal of the American Medical Association recently published a study suggesting that wearing these “activity trackers” could actually lead to weight gain in the long-term. How quickly the shimmer of these magical devices has worn off — wasn’t it just yesterday that everyone wanted to one on their wrist?

Read any health headline these days and you’ll realize that yesterday’s hyped diet or exercise fad is today’s health myth. The amount of medical knowledge produced each day is dizzying, spewing like a geyser from labs and researchers all over the world and reaching consumers instantaneously. And so the conundrum that physicians have to confront now isn’t a lack of answers to our most pressing health problems but rather too many answers to choose from. From the ever-expanding pile of research papers and clinical trials and health claims, we have to decide which ones will stand the test of time and which ones should be discarded from practice.

There’s a scene in Lewis Carroll’s children’s novel Through the Looking Glass in which the Red Queen proclaims, “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!" It’s a perfect allegory of medicine. Even the most seasoned physician is constantly beating back against the flood of information, keeping up with new guidelines, drugs, and medical findings.

But for me, I’ve stopped running. The last time I stepped into a patient’s room was seven months ago and the last time that I sutured close an incision was eight months ago. Since last July, I’ve worked in a translational cancer lab studying and hoping to solve cancer metastasis.

When I decided to dedicate a year to research, my biggest concern was the mental rust that would slowly erode away the medical encyclopedia that I worked so hard to compile over the past three years. I still try to stay sharp. I read the medical journals. I listen to the medical podcasts. I keep up with the headlines in the news. But drug names and their side effects — factoids that I once could easily tick off like the alphabet — are now jumbled in my mind. The human anatomy is blurry. Biochemical pathways that used to be so clearly delineated are now twisted unto one another.

I remember telling myself at the end of my final rotation during third year that this moment was the peak of my clinical acumen in all of medical school. And now having spent over half a year doing research, I’ll have to start over again from scratch. Like Sisyphus, I gaze up once more at the mountain that I thought I had finished climbing.

I had dinner with a few classmates this past weekend. We reminisced on our rotations and we shared stories of the patients whom we met when we first stepped in the hospital. I still remember them so vividly — the wrinkles on their faces, their soft, raspy voices, the smell of the hospital mixed with a tinge of old hospital breakfast, the rhythmic beeping of the heart monitors. I could recall the looks of the spouses and the children who stood around their beds and topics of our early morning conversations. Sure, I forgot how we arrived at the diagnosis, how we eventually treated them, and which drugs were prescribed, or the exact steps of their surgeries. But memories of those connections still sit firmly in my memory.

So I’m okay with temporarily losing that technical knowledge. They can be learned again in no time. But compassion? Empathy? Those “skills” never leave.

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 fourth-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 by smithcarolyn01

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