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How to thrive and not just survive on medical school placements!

Updated: Aug 7, 2022

During my clinical years at university, I used to wake up each day dreading going to the wards. For me, rotating every few weeks, I felt like an eternal spare part mindlessly following people around with no real purpose. Further to this, I felt a burden to those I was shadowing and ultimately spent my clinical attachments feeling uncomfortable, anxious, and not really learning much! Due to this, I was regularly and genuinely questioning whether medicine was the right career for me. I’d grown to hate being within a hospital and really could not imagine myself working as a doctor; I was close to quitting on many occasions.

Fast-forward to now, I am just beginning my fourth year as a doctor since qualifying and I absolutely love my job and could not imagine doing anything else. What’s more, is that I enjoyed the job from the very first day, and this has been sustained since then. What I quickly came to realise when qualified, was that during medical school the innate interest that I had in medicine as a subject, and the joy of working with people, was all smothered by feeling so uncomfortable as a student on a ward. Suddenly, when you are a vital cog in the functioning of the ward, the interest and enthusiasm return and importantly, working as a doctor was nothing like I had imagined when on placements as a student. It would have been a great comfort to know this when struggling as a student, and I have come to find a large proportion of my colleagues also felt this way. By reflecting on my experiences both as a student and as a doctor supervising students, here are some tips to try and maximise enjoyment and thriving when on placement:

1. Make yourself known to the entire ward; introduce yourself to not only doctors, but nurses, physios and all the other allied professions. More importantly, try and learn their names! If doctors are busy, you can learn just as much from other staff members and the more people that know you, the more welcome and comfortable you will feel.

2. Be present. If you only show your face occasionally to ask for a sign off, you will not be giving a good impression of yourself, and staff will be less likely to make an active effort to support you. Arrive on time for ward rounds, be inquisitive and show initiative in speaking to patients and staff members alike; most of the time the ward team will recognise this and will treat you like a rightful member of the team.

3. Ask how you can help! Medical students can be immensely helpful, from writing discharge summaries, doing bloods, performing mini-mental state examinations… the list is endless! If you ask somebody to show you how and make it clear that you want to assist the team, you will always be welcomed, and you’ll be getting to grips with the key jobs of junior doctors at the same time.

4. Take every opportunity offered, even if it’s not essential for sign offs. Something that may not seem immediately useful will often teach you more than expected and will likely give a realistic insight into the daily jobs of junior doctors. Furthermore, it’s all time spent being present and becoming familiar to the ward team.

5. Acknowledge when things are busy. Sometimes it’s unavoidable that ward teams will be rushed off their feet. If you acknowledge this and offer to return at a less busier time, staff will often make the effort to help you at a later point or find ways in which you can help them.

If you are one of those people like me that just didn’t enjoy clinical attachments, I hope this gives you some reassurance that things will get better. Being a student is worlds away from being a doctor, and if you get through your placements using some of the tips above, what is waiting on the other side is a whole lot of fun!

By Dr William Haskins

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