Richard Zhang

Richard Zhang

There is just simply not enough time in medical school to become proficient at absolutely everything. There is such a vast body of medical knowledge and research that we simply cannot remain up-to-date on every single little detail of every pathology or drug or novel treatment strategy, no matter how much time and effort we put into learning and memorizing absolutely every medical factoid we come across. Now pile onto that the fact that we must also become proficient in dozens of procedural skills and sensitively communicating with patients, and you can probably see it just isn’t impossible to become flawless, perfect doctors in our short time in medical school. It’s inevitable that we will have our (probably many) limitations pointed out to us again and again, and knowing that we aren’t perfect at so many things can be quite difficult. Here are some strategies that might be able to help you embrace some of your limitations in medical school.

Coping with criticism

It’s not a secret that you will receive a lot of criticism throughout medical school. There are simply too many demanding skills you have to become proficient at and too many factoids you have to learn. It is humanly impossible to nail all those skills or know every fact immediately, and as a result, you will be criticized. In just the past week, I’ve been criticized for forgetting simple investigations for cirrhosis, for not getting to ward rounds an hour early, and for being too gentle in a pelvic examination to the point that I wouldn’t be able to elicit the signs I was looking for. Because medical school is filled with so many opportunities for criticism, it’s important to learn how to cope with them. Try to look past the harshness of whatever criticism is being thrown at you, and focus only on the feedback contained within it. It can sometimes be difficult to separate criticism from personal attacks, but it is important to try, so that you can learn from your mistakes. 

Responding to feedback

Feedback is one of the most important learning tools you will ever get in medical school. Realistically, when it comes to simply learning facts for your board exams, you could probably study that entirely on your own or by using one of the many preparation courses available (we recommend Physeo, of course). However, when it comes to procedural skills, such as eliciting signs on a physical examination or collecting blood for venipuncture, or communication skills, such as taking a history, there really is no substitute for learning by doing. The only way to improve these skills is to continue practicing and learning from the feedback you get given, whether it’s from your intern observing your blood draw, or from the simulated patient you just took the history from. Making sure you take careful note of your feedback and actually taking steps to act on it is one of the most critical paths to success in medical school.

Dealing with impostor syndrome

Impostor syndrome is something almost every medical professional deals with at some point in their career. It’s understandable too – as a doctor, you will be making crucial choices that directly impact the safety and wellbeing of others, which is not a responsibility to take lightly. Add on to that the fact that you will be surrounded by colleagues who will seem exceptional and in control of every situation thrown at them, and you can see why so many people feel as though they don’t fit in with their apparently overqualified peers, especially when their own limitations are constantly being pointed out to them. In these situations, it is critical not to lose sight of all of the hard work you have put into getting to the point you are at now. The process of getting into medical school, passing all of your exams, and simply surviving through the endless lectures and hospital hours all require incredible effort that only the most resilient could endure. These past achievements are a testament to what you can accomplish, and if you are ever feeling overwhelmed or feel like a misfit, just remember all of the work you have put in before to remind yourself of your potential to excel in medicine. 

Not comparing yourself to others

Another easy trap to fall into is comparing your achievements or exam results or procedural skills to those of your peers. However, it’s important to remember that no two medical students have had the same journey through medical school. Instead of comparing yourself to your peers, you should be comparing yourself now to how you were a week ago or a month ago. If you are continually improving, then eventually you’ll be an incredibly competent doctor, and if you haven’t been improving, then you can ask yourself why that is, and come up with plans to address that. However, this self-improvement is almost impossible if you only compare yourself to others.

Continuously reflecting

Continuous reflection is one of the best learning tools any medical student can have in their arsenal. When you first learn to play a sport or an instrument, your coach or tutor is always by your side observing and fixing any errors you make until you master the technique. It’s the same for medicine, only you will have to be your own coach. Reflecting on the things you can improve upon and the skills you can continue to develop is how you improve. Consider keeping a journal of examinations where you missed the pertinent signs, or a record of the information you forgot to give when calling a consult, and regularly revisit these previous mistakes to ensure you don’t make them again in the future. 

Learning the phrase “I don’t know”

The phrase “I don’t know” is one of those phrases I was always afraid to use when I started medical school, up there with “levetiracetam” and “sorry doctor, I couldn’t get the cannula”. But the thing is, there’s absolutely no problem with not knowing something. Medicine is so vast, and we have so little time to learn it all, that we can’t be expected to know absolutely everything there is to know about every small condition or medication. Embracing the fact that there are simply some things I won’t know has made me feel less afraid of asking questions and being wrong during my placements, which has ultimately helped me learn so much more than if I had been afraid to admit there were things I did not know. 

Everybody is fighting an uphill battle in medical school. It’s an inherently difficult journey in an inherently difficult career. Doubting yourself and being afraid of imperfection will only make medical school more difficult for yourself. Embracing your limitations and finding realistic and positive ways to either overcome or work around them will make you a better and happier medical student.

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