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How watching a television medical drama gave a medical student confidence

When I was in high school, I remember being fascinated by the television series "House," the medical mystery show whose title character was the doctor version of Sherlock Holmes (only with non-existent ethics and a drug problem). Back then, of course, I didn’t have much understanding of the medicine behind the show, but I was impressed by the show’s apparently realistic use of medical terminology and the way it made the diagnostic process exciting.

After losing track of the show when I was in college, I recently decided to go back and pick up a few of the old episodes just for fun – to see how the show would be different now that I was actually in medical school. Amazingly, "House" felt like a completely different production. With a few exceptions, when the doctors on the show ordered numerous (often unnecessary) tests, threw out the names of obscure diagnoses, and started treatment for a patient, I knew what they were talking about. My fascination for "House" was still alive, but with a major difference: whereas before the excitement came from never knowing exactly what was going on, now I was excited because I did know what was going on.

In this way, returning to the show after many years was more than just cheap entertainment — it was also an unexpected landmark of my time in medical school. Having recently finished all of my medical school classroom learning, I have theoretically acquired enough basic knowledge to work on a team to take care of real patients. However, in medicine there is always more to learn, and it becomes very easy to feel as though you know very little. In fact, I hear it from my colleagues all the time – “I’m just a second-year medical student; I don’t know anything.”

I realized, though, that it’s just not possible to critically analyze the medical aspects of a show as rapid and complex as "House" when you “don’t know anything.” And critically analyze I did! It was instinctually obvious that the doctors were not taking good patient histories, were often ordering unnecessary tests, and were magically healing patients even with ineffective treatments. One of the most memorable moments was when the great Dr. House himself started CPR on a patient, and I started yelling at the screen “Faster! Those chest compressions are way too slow!”

While I’m not suggesting that watching a medical drama on TV is a great test of one’s medical knowledge, it has somehow showed me that, after a whirlwind couple of years, we’ve come a long way as medical students. We know how to gather information from patients, how to go about diagnosing them, how to treat them, and even how to keep them alive in the greatest of emergency situations. While the ultimate test will be how we put this knowledge to use when we actually get into the clinics in the coming weeks, I was grateful for the chance to recognize that – believe it or not – we’ve come a long way already.

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. 

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

Illustration by OpenClipartVectors

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