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Top 5 reasons medical students should do community service

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.

As the process of applying to medical school, and then later residency, becomes hyper-competitive, us medical students often feel forced to pursue our passions only in ways that are “high-yield.” It may seem counterintuitive, but the further we go in our medical training, the more inertia we seem to have about giving our time and energy to the every day people in need. We're so pressed for time from our participation in cutting-edge research, highly scalable health-policy work, and exciting start-ups, that we sometimes lose touch with the very people whose need first sparked our commitment to medicine.

We all know that helping people is the right thing to do. I don’t need to wax on about how we can be the people we want to be - how it's a choice. This post is for the moments when we succumb to focusing solely on our resumes and our future applications. This post is about how using our skills as medical students to help people will actually help us professionally. It’s like when companies align their triple bottom line. We can do that, too.

And, so, the reasons:

1. To get individualized mentorship. The free clinics run by medical students have doctors who walk one or two pre-clinical students through the entire patient encounter - from taking the history to doing the physical to presenting the patient. This kind of one-on-one training is very rare.

2. To practice applying clinical skills. As a pre-clinical student in a free clinic, you actually get to do a physical exam on real patients rather than actors pretending to be ill. You get to work through a real-life clinical reasoning case and generate a differential.

3. To remember why you wanted to go to medical school. Medical school can be really hard, mostly because it may be the first time that you're surrounded by peers who work just as hard as you do. But get back in touch with the desire to help people, which is what brought most of us to medicine in the first place, and you can replenish your sense of purpose as a medical student.

4. To figure out what you like clinically. Most of us are either honest with ourselves about not knowing what kind of medicine we want to practice or fool ourselves into thinking we know what we want to do based on a few shadowing experiences. Either way, getting involved and taking an active role in patient care can help you determine whether you like cardiology versus neurology, or it can solidify the hunch you already had.

5. To get a leg up when applying to residency. A Harvard surgery resident recently talked about what gave her an advantage when she was applying to residency; her answer was both research and her involvement in free clinics. She said that because she worked in a free clinic every Thursday evening doing diabetic foot exams, she was more comfortable in a clinical setting, she was more self-guided as a clinical student, and therefore, she was more competent when she did her sub-I’s.

Most medical students have a competitive streak. When you do something, you want to be good at it. So set yourself up to be good at your clinical rotations. Set yourself up to be taken seriously as a doctor whether you plan to pursue research, policy, or entrepreneurship. Set yourself up by volunteering in your community's free clinics.

Natalia Birgisson is a second-year student at Stanford’s medical school. She is half Icelandic, half Venezuelan and grew up moving internationally before coming to Stanford for college. She is interested in neurosurgery, global health, and ethics. Natalia loves running and baking; when she’s lucky the two activities even out.

Photo courtesy of Arbor Free Clinic

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