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Medicine is a team sport – and that’s exactly how it should be

In this piece Stanford medical student Nathaniel Fleming describes the teamwork involved in becoming a physician.

It’s Sunday, and the clock is approaching 8 PM. Every computer in our team room is still on, and the sound of typing is filling the small space. A spread of snacks, interspersed between stethoscopes and stacks of faxed records, is ignored for the time being.

This scene was a familiar one on inpatient medicine, where call days can stretch long into the evening. Although those days were challenging and draining, I also have fond memories of the experience as some of the best examples of collaboration and support during my medical training.

We're told even before applying to medical school that teamwork is an essential activity in medicine, but it was hard for me to fully appreciate why until being in the thick of the action. On my inpatient medicine rotation, relatively few decisions were made by only one person. In an academic center like Stanford, it’s common for a patient to be followed closely by three to four layers of people - medical student, intern, resident, and attending. In that setting, it's easy to see that outstanding communication is instrumental. When one of those four people sees a lab result come back and needs to make a decision, having a solid team structure in place becomes vital.

In this sort of environment, there is an incredible amount of growth that takes place over the three or four weeks you spend together. There’s a common refrain in medical training that one of your main jobs is always to make the other people on your team look good. To that end, a spirit of selflessness prevails during the busiest times. There’s also a critical element of trust that can take time to build. As a medical student, the more that I can show my seniors that I can work independently, the more that I can help out by doing more work on my own. It’s then when the team really starts to find a rhythm; each new admission takes less time, as everybody knows where they can best fit it to the workflow of the group.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, being on a team is about more than just direct patient care. It's also a bonding experience that constantly reminds you that you are never alone. When the stress kicks up, the fatigue sets in, or the patients are simply sicker, having people next to you who absolutely have your back can be enough to get you through the day. Little things like escaping to the ice cream vending machine or ordering lunch from somebody’s favorite restaurant on a call day became highlights of my week (yes, food is always an important coping mechanism in the hospital!).

In the longer term, my former teammates will always be familiar faces in the hospital, and I look up to some of them as mentors who have helped put me in the best position possible for my own future. Now I can say that I fully understand - and fully embrace - the teamwork involved in becoming a physician.

Photo by Perry Grone

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 fourth-year medical student and a native Oregonian. His interests include health policy and clinical research. 

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