It’s no secret that patients and senior doctors alike see the quintessential junior doctor as some chatty, gregarious extrovert that bounces around the wards with a constantly smiling, friendly face. Well, I also put on a similar face every time I pull back a curtain to meet my newest patient. I read the room, I read the patient, and I always have a pleasant conversation with the patient about their health, no matter what context I’m meeting them in. I’ve never had issues with connecting with patients – I’ve even had patients thank me for telling them about their cancer diagnosis. And yet, I would probably fulfil zero of most people’s typical criteria for being an extrovert. I prefer to spend time with only a few friends at a time; I prefer studying alone to studying in a group; I prefer lounging around with my dog eating cereal for lunch and watching Netflix to partying. So how am I making it through medical school just fine? Here are a few things to know as an introvert in medical school.
- Introversion is not an inability to communicate
It’s important to note that introversion does not mean an inability to communicate. Almost invariably, being labelled an introvert comes with some level of stigma and the perception that you somehow cannot communicate or connect with people. Hopefully the next paragraph will help dispel some of those opinions, but preferring to speak less and think more does not signal incompetence or an avoidant personality. All of you will meet successful attendings and residents who command the room with their focus and soft-spoken confidence rather than their loudness or ability to chat for hours.
- Being an introvert is often a strength
There are obviously strengths to being an extrovert (that’s why everyone thinks the ideal medical student/junior doctor is super extroverted) – but there are also valuable attributes introverts bring to the table that often remain underappreciated. Susan Cain details this best in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, for those of you keen to find out more. Particularly relevant to the field of medicine though, is the fact that introverts are known for being great listeners and reflective individuals. Both of these traits are invaluable in the field of clinical medicine. Communicating with patients requires more listening than speaking, and progressing and maturing as a doctor requires commitment to ongoing self-reflection and improvement. So take conscious note of your ability to listen and reflect, and continue to maintain those strengths.
- The patient comes first
The best teacher you will ever meet in medical school is not a professor. It won’t be a teaching assistant. It won’t even be a doctor. The single best teacher you will ever encounter in medical school is the patient. So when you’re on the wards and you’ve just finished conducting a patient interview, don’t be afraid to ask what they thought of your communication. When I first started my clinical years, I had one particular attending who would always ask my patients what they thought of my history and examination. After having all of my flaws brutally pointed out time and time again, I slowly managed to correct my errors and develop my strengths. Most patients don’t actually need you to be loud and bubbly and extroverted every second of the day – so instead of forcing yourself to be an extrovert, pay attention to what your patients like and dislike about your manner, and act on those.
- Silence is golden
Extroverts are often uncomfortable with silence. When faced with the possibility of a gap of silence in conversation, some of my most outgoing friends would honestly rather fill it with the sound of their own flatulence than let the conversation take even a momentary pause. I, on the other hand, have dragged my best friends trekking and forced them to stop talking so that we could appreciate the crunching of gravel under our feet, and the soft crashing of the waves against the cliffsides. That ability to not only be comfortable with, but also appreciate, silence is one of the most overlooked qualities when communicating with patients. So many times in the past, afraid of seeming introverted, I would often interrupt silences with nothing in particular – useless filler phrases that disrupted the flow of the interview and undermined the rapport I had established with the patient. Now, when I ask questions like “And how are you coping with your illness?”, their silence is often answer enough. So fight the urge to follow up those hard-hitting questions with fillers, and instead embrace the quiet – it should be easy as an introvert.
- Know when to be assertive
Despite some of the strengths I listed above, there are also things introverts need to work on. The single comment I have received most in my feedback throughout my life is that I often seem a bit reserved. Personally, I don’t mind blending in with the crowd. I have no need to stand out, because I’m happy to just work hard to continue learning so that I may become a capable and knowledgeable physician. The problem is that’s not all the patients need. Patients don’t just need their doctors to be smart, they also need them to be confident when discussing their management too. When I watch interns and other junior medical officers discuss their patients, I see compassionate and firm advocates that sometimes have to fight to ensure their patients get the management they deserve. Sometimes, the job calls for assertiveness – and sticking in your comfort zone as a soft-spoken introvert can prevent your patients from getting the healthcare outcomes they deserve.
- Pay attention to the ‘soft lectures’
Yes, in my pre-clinical years, I also hated every mandatory lecture that wasn’t about the basic and clinical sciences. It felt like a waste of time to learn things that weren’t going to be in Step 1. I’m sure your medical school peers have also made memes about these supposedly ‘low-yield’ lectures. However, looking back, there were so many little lessons that I carried with me into my clinical years. As an introvert, it’s easy to turn patient interactions into a goal-oriented checklist of questions, but small changes in perception, such as the advice I received to “treat the patient history more like a conversation than an interview” have allowed me to establish better rapport and overcome some of the difficulties in communication that introverts can experience when communicating with patients.
- Networking for introverts
Networking is perhaps the single most important topic that everyone needs to know about, but has never been put into words. Unfortunately, as introverts who simply don’t ‘have a knack for it’, we get left behind while the extroverts seem to get all the attention at every opportunity. However, there are still a few workarounds that can allow an introvert to network well. Firstly, always play to your strengths. Trying to strike up a meaningful, attention-grabbing conversation in an informal context like a cocktail party might be entirely futile and very frustrating for introverts. Instead, try forming bonds with established doctors over time by completing research projects with them or volunteering at conferences. Essentially, by giving yourself time to have longer, more in-depth conversations with someone you have established common ground with (either the research project, the conference, or similar), you can impress anyone just as well as any extrovert. Another tip to keep in mind is to search out other introverts – as I mentioned earlier, you will meet several successful attendings and residents who are also introverts, and it will almost invariably be easier to network with these contacts.
- The art of small talk
Yes, the saying is true, you can get big information from small talk. During my pediatrics rotation, I learned just how valuable a little bit of chit-chat can be. Discussions about favorite Netflix shows, K-pop bands and even Tiktok dances can open up even the angstiest and most guarded teenagers, a demographic that I’m sure all of you have had issues getting information out of. So, small talk is an important tool that every capable physician needs. While that might not come easily to an introvert, it will absolutely be worth your time to spend a little effort practising small talk (and researching Blackpink or the latest d’Amelio drama if you know you’ll be spending time with adolescents). Some suggestions from my more extroverted friends for working on this include: get a casual job in customer service, practise spontaneously starting up a conversation with a stranger you meet in public, or try to make a friend out of your next Uber driver rather than putting in your headphones til the ride’s over.
So there you have it! Armed with these tips, hopefully medical school should be just that little bit easier for my fellow introverts.