This is the week that the roughly 16,000 new doctors in the United States will start their residency training. Even though it doesn’t feel like it, you are ready! The first year of medical school gave you the “vocabulary” you needed for this new language. The second year gave you the “grammar.” Your rotations in the clinics taught you the “language”. Now you get to actually use it every day!
This year will be one of the most profound transitions you will ever make…. and it will also be a year of intense and fabulous memories. Take some time to write down the stories, or take some photos (but not of patients unless you have their permission!). These notes and images will be precious memories in the future.
In talking to other physicians and thinking about my own experiences, here are a few words of advice for you as you start your internship this week:
Learn from every patient.
As an intern, you will need to know a lot of detailed information on your patients. You’ll need to use a system to keep track of all this information so that when you are asked, you know the last potassium level, which antibiotics were ordered and what the ID consultant said. If you have a system you developed as a 4th year medical student, great! If not, start with 3×5 cards. Keep one card per patient, clipped together or held together with a metal ring. There are electronic systems available like iScut and My scut list. I haven’t found one that I think is adequate – but I’d love to hear from anyone who has found good software that works! Also (very important) – if you are going to have any patient information stored electronically, please make sure it is HIPAA compliant.
That covers the information, but not the learning. Learning is something that should be actively integrated into your day, not something you do at night when you are falling asleep. Work on a system that lets you record what you are learning during your daily tasks in a way you can review later. 3×5 cards are a simple, cheap and very effective system for studying medicine, which I’ve described in a previous post. Make a separate card (or use the back of your rounding card) to list something (anything) you learned from every patient you see.
Don’t confuse gathering information with studying information. Taking notes is a critical part of learning. Don’t just make files of chapters and articles… summarize them to review later by taking notes.
Be the doctor for your patients.
This may sound obvious, but in the everyday world of the hospital, it is really easy as an intern to get lost in the details of patient care… and forget about caring for the patient. Stop every once in a while and remember that you really are their doctor. Take a few deep breaths and put yourself in their shoes for a minute to ask something about their family, hold their hand, or just sit with them for a minute.
It’s very easy to get swept away by the velocity of the work most interns experience and lose the “big picture”. When you are confronted with something you haven’t seen before, push yourself to make a plan before you call your upper level resident or the attending. What if you were really the only doctor around? What would you do? Spend 2 minutes on UpToDate if you have to, but don’t just be a clerical worker – be their doctor.
Part of being a good doctor to your patients is to recognize your own limitations. You should never feel bad about calling someone with more experience, no matter how “dumb” you think the question is. It’s the right thing to do for the patient.
Be deliberate about learning your field.
From day one, commit to an organized plan of study to cover everything you need to learn in your field. Your goal should be to learn (not just read) everything in the primary textbook for your field.
Make a plan to read (and then study to learn) a textbook every year. Make notes that are easy to review, so you don’t have to go back to the textbook to review the material. Whatever system you use, make it easy to integrate the notes you are making in the hospital (i.e. the 3×5 card on each patient) with your organized study system. Adding articles into the mix is fine – but only after you have mastered the basics. Don’t let reading the latest finding take the place of really learning the material in the textbook.
Be kind and be part of the team.
Hard work is made easier when it’s done with your friends. You will all be tired, you will all be stressed, but be kind to each other. Staying 5 minutes more to help out a fellow intern is an investment that will help both of you. Look for ways to apply the golden rule of internship: “Help others the way you would liked to be helped”.
Make your bed.
Do this simple act every morning to remind yourself to take care of yourself. Find time to consciously take care of your emotional, physical and spiritual health. Take good food to the hospital for your nights on call. Find ways to get stress reducing exercise into your weekly schedule, or at least find ways to increase your activity while you are at work. Watch your weight – if you are losing or gaining, it’s a sign that you need to focus on your own wellbeing by improving your nutrition and working on your fitness. Nurture your relationships – make your family and friends a priority. Take care of your spiritual needs in whatever way is best for you, but don’t ignore this important aspect of self-care.
You have the enormous privilege of caring for other people and learning the art of medicine. Take a little time every day to notice the moments of joy in this work and, if you can, write them down to look at on the days you are tired.
Congratulations to you for all you’ve accomplished thus far! Enjoy this incredible journey!