The Last Summer for Medical Students

12 01 2012

The summer between first year and second year of medical school is sometimes referred to as the “last summer” since it is the last time students can travel or take off before they start the journey towards USMLE Step 1 and then their third year clerkships.  With the angst building, first year medical students are actively deciding in the dead of winter what they will do over the summer.  One popular decision is to do research – this is not uncommon since residency programs are increasingly competitive and look for students who have a commitment to scholarly work.  However, there are a plethora of other things students could do as well.    As tonight is our “Intro to our Summer Research Program” for Pritzker medical students, I thought I would share some of the most common questions I get about the “Last Summer”:

  • Should I do research in a competitive field?   The answer here is to do substantive research that you are interested in with a “CAPE” mentor (Capable, Available, Project interests you, Easy to get along with).   As my premed advisor once told me, “Mickey Mouse” research is not going to look good to anyone (no offense Mickey).   The key is to find something you are passionate about – after all you have to tell this story on your interview trail of why you choose to do this and the answer “because I wanted to go into ortho” is not really that captivating to anyone (even to an orthopedic surgeon).   Instead, if you do something you are passionate about, like community health work, you can always tie it back to your chosen field.  Most residency program directors don’t expect you arrived in medical school with laser like focus towards their field anyway and expect to hear some type of journey or a-ha moment that drew you to their field.  Because competitive specialties are often reimbursed for clinical work and tend to be smaller departments, they depth of research opportunities may be more limited.  But, don’t forget that neuroscience research is relevant to neurosurgery – and oncology research on head and neck cancer is still relevant for ENT and so forth.  The best research is often interdisciplinary and crosses department boundaries so you should not be afraid to either.  It’s also important to remember that as a first year student, it’s hard to even know if you will be competitive for radiation oncology or associated competitive specialties.  You will need killer board scores, and great clinical grades.  So, while you may think securing the research with the Dept Chair will give you an extra ‘edge’, nothing and no one can make up for a poor performance on high stakes exams or clinical rotations.  So, don’t forget to study!
  • I want to go to country X?  How can I get a global health rotation there?  Well, certainly the urge to travel is strong in anyone (including me).  But, you need to separate your travel bug from a genuine interest in global health.  Most global health rotations are not a vacation – and may not be what you think of as “tourist” destination (despite the short-lived popularity of Off the Map).   Maybe your stars are aligned and your school or a nearby affiliate you know has a program near your hot spot of interest.  Usually, however, it is not that easy and you should consider how strong your affinity is for a specific country or location versus your interest in getting the best global health experience possible.  Global health programs that fund medical students are not easy to come by.  So, if you are genuinely interested in global health, it is always better to go with an established program and mentor to get the most substantive experience even if it’s not in the exact country you are interested in.  The other thing to remember is while this may be your last summer for a while; it is not your last vacation!  You will have time to plan a vacation to your designated hot spot if you can’t work it in this summer.
  • Do I have to do anything?  The answer here is easy – no, you don’t have to do anything per se with your ‘time off’.  Many students find themselves on the hamster wheel of endless extracurricular activities.  The real question is what is your goal? If it is to go home and see family and friends, there is nothing wrong with that!  The key is to ensure that you are doing something with your time off that will make you feel ready to face the second year of medical school.   It is easy to forget that there is a lot of time to participate in extracurricular activities at various other points in your medical school career.   The key is that if you will regret not spending time with your friends or family this summer, then you need to make time to do that.
  • What if I want to do everything because I don’t want to close any doors?  This is not an uncommon feeling for medical students. However, its important to remember that your summer work is not choosing a specialty! There is essentially nothing you can do over the summer that will ‘close a door’ – there may be some things that allow you to put your foot further into the doorway but that does not mean another door will close.   The only doors you close are the ones in your mind.   Most students decide on their specialty after their third year rotations and will often fine-tune their experiences in research in that area in the fourth year.   Another thing to consider is to do research in a cross-cutting area like ethics that could apply to everything.  Sometimes the angst you may be feeling is about making a choice that is wrong for you.  However, the truth is that as long as you are genuinely interested in the opportunity, you cannot make a wrong choice since it will be an easy story to tell no matter what you do.  Since everyone is different, it is always good to get individualized advice from a faculty advisor at your school who can comment on your specific career and research goals.

Finally, no matter what you do with your last summer, don’t forget to make sure you enjoy it!

Vineet Arora MD





Transforming Medical Education: Trust, Time, Teams & Technology

28 11 2011

This past Thanksgiving, I was able to reflect on the always jam-packed and inspiring Association of American Medical Colleges 2011 Meeting that took place earlier this month in Denver.  The theme of the meeting was transformation.  It was certainly an interesting theme with the undertones of economic recession and the GME funding crisis- and that was before the failure of the Supercommittee to reach a resolution.  So, how does medical education need to transform?  In more ways than one, it turns out.  So here are just 4 that were the recurring themes of the meeting and being a fan of alliteration, they all begin with “T”.

  • Trust – it was clear that we need to restore the Americans people trust in physicians and in the medical education process.  While students enter medicine to make a difference, something that they see in their journey to becoming a physician makes them jaded and they sometimes lose sight of their initial intention. Is it debt, burnout, role models…Or likely some combination of the 3? It does not matter, because we have to restore their faith in teaching– yes teaching.  Teaching is the heart and soul of our medical education and it is sometimes the easiest to lose in an academic health center focused on NIH dollars or US news world report rankings.  In addition to teaching our students, it is time to teach another constituency, our patients and Congress about the critical need for medical education.   And in fact, advocacy is something we need to be teaching our own trainees so they can engage in the dialogue regarding the future of healthcare.
  • Time- perhaps the most radical proposal advanced was by Victor Fuchs who suggested that we radically redesign medical school to have medical students specialize 2 years after medical school and enter specific pathways like they do in many other countries and in other fields.  I’m all for shortening dwell time for our medical trainees, but I am not so sure that young people are ready to make a serious commitment about what they want to do at such an early age.  There has to be a middle ground since at the same time, one of the most well attended sessions was “who cares about the 4th year of medical school?” which included many insightful comments about the need for reflection and consolidation of core skills.  So, clearly not all time is easily tossed to the waste side.
  • Teams- given the projected shortage of over 90,000 physicians by 2020, it is important to reorganize care into teams.  While there is a lot of controversy about what to call nurses who have PhDs, that was not the focus of the meeting. It was about how can you encourage everyone to practice to their highest level of certification.  Team based competences have actually been developed by several groups and have been advanced by many schools with inter professional learning.  One difficulty we face at home is that we don’t have allied health professions, but we are brainstorming how to involve actual nurses and pharmacists in training medical students.
  • Technology -there was a lot of discussion about technology to boost medical education.  There was even a technology in medical education abstract session moderated by @motherinmedicine and including podcasts, iPads, and social media in medicine.  Perhaps the most interesting speaker was Chuck Friedman at the University of Michigan who is the former technology czar of the US and eloquently highlighted the need for moving medical education from wrote memorization to a distributed knowledge where the most important information future physicians will need to know is not what the information is off the top of their head BUT how to access information.  He went so far to say testing would move to “unassisted testing” followed by “cloud-supported testing” which would then merge into a pass or fail based on performance on both.  I know all of us who certified or recertified recently would welcome assistance from the cloud- it is after all the closest approximation to real medicine.  However, my hands down favorite moment of this session was when someone astutely asked what about these physicians when the power goes out or when the computer system fries.  His response was simple and so spot on… “Dont get me started on the state of IT in our teaching hospitals”.
So, while we just celebrated a holiday and accompanying ritual to give thanks, it is now time for medical educators to transcend the traditional status quo and instead test novel techniques to transform medical training — not only to restore public trust but so we can also train the trainees who will treat us in the future.
–Vineet Arora MD




Differences Between Real & Fake Patients

9 10 2011

Each morning this week, I am rounding on a busy inpatient general medicine service in an academic hospital seeing real patients.  Each night this week, I am also studying for the internal medicine recertification exam where I am doing countless MKSAP questions which present the diagnostic and management conundrums of “fake patients.”   While there are a variety of things I could say about the process, one thing is clear- the real patients don’t ever come as neatly wrapped and easy to figure out as the pithy and succinct questions based on fake patients in the prep questions!   Perhaps the most distinct differences are that real patients suffer from real problems that plague real people…and that is of course why one of the most important lessons for our medical students is that being a good doctor is more than just how well you do on a standardized exam.  It is knowing how to mobilize a team and resources to tend to all of these problems in the same patient.   Here are just a few ways in which the real patients we see differ from testable “patients.”

  • Social problems trump medical problems – Many of the patients we see suffer from poor health literacy, lack of insurance, access to safe housing, affordable healthy food, and access to healthcare outside of the hospital that prevents optimal care and treatment of their medical conditions.  Understanding how to bring up and address these problems is equally important to design a customized care plan for a patient that will ensure their most optimal recovery and health outside of the hospital.
  • Caregiver support- Many older patients who are chronically ill are cared for by family members who suffer a lot of stress.  This stress manifests in different ways and sometimes you see that sigh of relief when they come to the hospital since they are in need of as much care and support as their family member.  Arranging home services and providing and ensuring caregiver support is a key part of hospital care these days.
  • Insurance compatibility – Most patients require services that go beyond hospital discharge, such as home IV antibiotics or short-term rehabilitation stays after hospitalization to recover.  In addition, patients often require close follow up after hospitalization. Unfortunately, arranging such things for patients who are uninsured or underinsured is increasingly difficult.  Perhaps this is one thing that we can hope to change with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act- lets at least hope so.  But for now, it’s sometimes a guessing game how to piece together the most logical plan that will also be optimally covered.
  • Medical necessity – These days, patients can’t stay in the hospital to “recover” unless it meets strict criteria for inpatient admission.  This process is audited by private contractors so hospitals are required to follow strict guidelines or face harsh penalties from Medicare.  The challenge is that for a variety of social issues documented above, patients may not be ready to go home (caregiver not ready, patient lacks understanding regarding illness, etc.) but they have to go home or be faced with footing the bill for their stay.   Given that rock and a hard place, it’s a difficult position for any doctor to be in.

Because medicine does change and evolve very quickly, we refresh our medical knowledge every 10 years by testing our clinical acumen through ‘caring’ for fake patients on a written exam.  But, a written exam can only go so far…Given the sea changes occurring on a daily basis in our healthcare delivery system, it is equally important to stay up-to-date on systems-level changes that influence how we can actually provide care for real patients.  After all, both are necessary for good doctoring.

Vineet Arora, MD








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