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Finding your feet when starting clinical training

14 March 2022 | Dr Bryan Tan, MBBS (Hons), Avant member, Medical Registrar, Monash Health

Making the switch to clinical training can be daunting for medical students. In an unfamiliar environment, interacting with patients and having additional responsibilities can be overwhelming. While there’s a lot to take in, these are my top tips to help make the transition as easy and rewarding as possible.

Self-directed learning

Self-directed learning is key to succeeding in clinical training.

Be prepared and read up on basic clinical sciences and examination techniques of various specialities to get the most out of your training. A helpful combination is to write things down you see in practice, then going home and studying as much as you can on that topic.

Give it a go

There is an adage, ‘you get what you give,’ and this is very true when it comes to your clinical training.

If you are new to the unit, introduce yourself to everyone and be willing to participate and try everything – remember, as an intern, you’ll be expected to perform these tasks daily, so better to learn as a student.

However, know your limits and remember that it is ok to say ‘I am not comfortable doing this’ if you feel like you are out of your depth.

Familiarise yourself with the system

Increasingly there is a move towards electronic medical records, but some places do still use hard copy records. Even with electronic medical records, each hospital has a different system which can be confusing and overwhelming.

Familiarise yourself with the systems as much as you can. If you have your own login, seek authorisation from your hospital and patient to look up history and results (you must not access patient records without authorisation). This can help you apply your learning in a clinical setting and be helpful at exam time.

The second pair of hands

Be proactive when you are on the wards. If you are authorised, offer to help by reviewing results and writing medical notes, which your resident will co-sign.

Help with routine tasks, such as chasing collateral, correspondence and previous investigations – the residents and registrars may then have more spare time to teach you something or even buy you a coffee.

Be friendly and professional

Introduce yourself to other students and staff, especially the registrars and ward nurse unit manager, as they will provide the most amount of help during your rotation.

Don’t come to work in a three-piece suit but ensure you dress professionally (look to the interns for inspiration.

Try not to be late – this is often a pet peeve for many doctors and can start you off on the wrong foot. Get a handover from previous students, so you know what time and where to show up.

Learn from your patients

Spend time with your patients and learn presentations of different medical conditions and examination findings. Importantly, it gives you time to establish rapport and empathise with patients, which is invaluable when talking to and counselling patients as a doctor. Being a medical student is the best time to learn how to extract sensitive knowledge, build rapport and be time efficient.

Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t know everything

The point of clinical training is to teach you to be a safe doctor (remember you continue to learn as a doctor). No one expects you to know all the answers.

If you get overwhelmed by all the information, focus on official university materials, such as a curriculum or matrix of conditions, or exam papers that may give you more perspective on what to study.

Ask questions (at the right time)

As a medical student, you will undoubtedly have questions, and senior medical students and doctors are happy to answer them but ask them when they have spare time – not in the middle of treating a patient or talking to family members.

There’s no such thing as a stupid question, and if you have a question, it’s guaranteed your peers will have the same one.

Seek extra help where you can

Utilise your clinical school for tips and guidance. There will be keen JMOs who are happy to take students on for extra tutorials and help adjust to clinical life.

Maintain privacy

No matter what stage you are at in your training or career patient privacy is very important.

Working in a hospital can be fun and exciting, but you must always maintain patient privacy. This extends from discussing identifying details to making sure you don’t misplace patient information, for example a ward list.

Appreciate different specialties

Chances are, during your clinical rotation, you will be exposed to a wide variety of hospital and community placements. It’s a good idea to develop a good understanding of different specialties, even the ones you are not interested in pursuing, because you will interact with those specialties in some shape or form later down the track.

Keep a balance

There is a growing emphasis on work-life balance to cope with the stress of training to be a doctor. Some people neglect other aspects of their life to focus on studying and working through clinical training. It’s important you discover hobbies and strategies to help destress, so you don’t burn out in the future.

Finally, have fun! Clinical training is a daunting but exciting time in your life and something that you will remember for the rest of your career. You will very likely make life-long friends during clinical training, so keep an open mind.

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