One of the most common experiences faced by a medical student is being asked for health care advice from a friend or family member. My initial reaction to these questions is usually something along the lines of, "Are you sure you want to be asking me that? I'm not even a doctor yet!" This is especially true when the question is about something that I'm not particularly experienced in (which, naturally, is usually the case). Thankfully for all of us, I've found that I don't have to "know" everything to be helpful.
One thing you might not know about doctors-in-training is how heavily we tend to rely on information available online. We even have our own version of Wikipedia, called UpToDate, with articles written and curated by experts in the field. When a family member asks me about their child's strange new rash, my first step is almost always to search for it online. At first, I felt uncomfortable with that -- isn't that cheating? Do real doctors do stuff like that? But I came to realize that this kind of action -- the ability to access outside information, interpret it, and use it to provide recommendations -- is actually the most important thing that I've learned in medical school.
Another way of saying this is that it's not all the material that I've memorized that has prepared me to graduate as a physician in a few months from now. It's the mastery of the fundamentals of medicine: the language and terminology, the techniques of questioning and examining patients, and the conventions of how we balance risks and benefits and how we counsel our patients. The "knowledge" is often available online; the interpretation of that knowledge is not.
In my experience, then, having a doctor-to-be as a family member or a trusted friend goes far beyond answering questions about mysterious rashes or acute aches and pains. As medical students (and doctors), we're not really walking encyclopedias of medical knowledge (or most of us aren't, anyway). But we do know how to support patients in making good decisions and being generally healthy. We've seen firsthand in our patients how difficult it is to stick to healthy routines: eating right, exercising, taking prescribed medications. We've also, unfortunately, seen the health consequences of not living healthy lifestyles firsthand. That combination of experience and motivation can provide just the right stimulus for us to make a difference -- even if it's just by sending a text message to a loved one reminding them to take their medications.
Happily, a Stanford study recently found that having a doctor or a nurse in the family is associated with living longer and a lower likelihood of things like heart attacks or diabetes, presumably due to the effect of the 'informal' health guidance from a loved one. To me, I take this study as inspiration that I can be a positive difference in the lives of not just my patients, but the people I love the most as well. If you're not fortunate enough to have a doctor in the family, a medical student might just be the next best thing.
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.
Photo by Curtis MacNewton