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Lessons from Pre-clinical Medical Education

An illustration of medical interns studying while sitting atop a giant stack of books.

One and a half years of pre-clinical education — 554 days, to be exact. I just took my last exam. After 554 days, I can finally pause and take a breath. Well, more like catch my breath. I could tell you the anatomical mechanics of said breath, but I’ll just say that it feels nice.

If you ask any first- or second-year medical student what they’re looking forward to most in their education, they’ll all tell you the same thing. They can’t wait to finish their pre-clinical years and get onto the wards. We long to say goodbye to the days of watching lectures at supersonic speed, and spending hours upon hours hitting the space bar on our computers as we memorize remote facts. We want to take care of real patients, real humans, instead of the hypothetical patients that show up on our exams. We want to see Zainab, Abayomi and Mateo instead of John and Sally.

While I’m incredibly excited for this transition in my medical education, I can’t help but look back at the past year and a half with awe and respect. Don’t get me wrong — I am relieved that it’s over and I never want to go back. But I can appreciate the memories I’ve made, the friends who have changed my life and the lessons learned. Here are my top four lessons from pre-clinical:

1. You will never know everything. That’s the whole point.

During my medical school application cycle, I told interviewers that I wanted to pursue a career in medicine because of the opportunities for lifelong learning. While this is as cliched now as it was then, it holds true. The human body is complex, and our understanding of it is constantly changing as new discoveries are made and technologies are developed. So, it’s not possible to know everything about the body, or about the organ system you’re currently studying. And that’s OK. While studying for tests, I took solace in the fact that I wasn’t expected to know everything — this makes exams much more approachable. The goal is never to know everything. Instead, the goal is to learn what you can to provide the best care for your future patients. That brings me to lesson No. 2.

2. It’s all about the patient.

It’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel during pre-clinical, but it’s out there. Everything we do, all the hours we spend studying, every fact we memorize — in the moment, it seems like they are for our grades and our board scores, but it should always be about providing the best care to every patient. That includes our patients 20 years down the road when we’re attending physicians, as well as the patients we’ll see on the wards. When I’m struggling to find motivation, I think about these patients. I think about what kind of doctor I want to be when I see them and how I want to care for them. Even if this doesn’t always motivate me in the moment, it provides much needed clarity and perspective. The diseases we’re learning about aren’t just flashcards to be memorized. They represent unique individuals who we will have the privilege to care for.

3. Your friends and peers will teach you just as much as your professors, if you’ll let them.

When people ask me what I’ve learned so far in medical school, I rarely think of lectures or textbooks. Instead, I find myself thinking about all the extra education my peers have given me. With a class as diverse as ours, it’s impossible not to constantly learn from one another — learn about our passions and hobbies, our research interests and aspirations, our life experiences. But most importantly, I’ve learned so much about our duty as people and future physicians to advocate for everyone, and to always work toward a more just and equitable health care system and society. I’ve learned about disability justice and how people who are disabled deserve to have their quality of life be understood and valued. I’ve changed my language to be more inclusive of all people, not just heteronormative society. A simple change from “pregnant women” to “people who are pregnant” is an example. I’ve seen my peers advocate tirelessly for better treatment of Black learners, for more justice in our system of mass incarceration, for LGBTQ+ rights and health, and much more. None of this is included in our formal curriculum — we rarely talk about systemic racism, disability rights, or the insidious history of medicine and our own institution. And more times than not when this is brought up, it’s by a student either sharing resources or urging professors to discuss these topics with us.

4. We are humans first and students second. Not the reverse.

This lesson is so important, so I’m going to repeat myself: We are humans first and foremost, and students second. Before entering medical school, I heard from older students that medical school was like a job. They said they spent their days doing two things: eating and studying. Looking back, I can safely say that I also spent most of my days going from meal to meal and lecture to lecture, especially in virtual school. However, I’ve also come to appreciate that my job is not solely to be a medical student. I am a student, but it is not the only identity I hold. I am also a daughter, sister, good friend, fan of bad reality TV and so much more. I am strong-minded with fierce opinions, a shoulder you can lean on without judgment, a passionate advocate, and a medical student and future physician. It’s important for me to remember these parts of myself and my own humanity. It’s easy to confine yourself to the role of student and learner, but you have to make time for what brings you joy. Call it self-care, staying sane or whatever you want — just don’t lose sight of who you are outside of school and medicine.

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3 thoughts on “Lessons from Pre-clinical Medical Education”

  1. Ingram Roberts, MD

    When you are on clinical rotations as a student, intern, resident and eventually attending , Do Not Skip meals! Finally treat your nurses like gold..

  2. Pingback: Transitioning to the Wards – Biomedical Odyssey

  3. Oh thanks, really useful tips.I think medicine is very noble. And applying to medical school is an important step. A lot of knowledge is needed and perseverance is an important point. Preclinical training requires resources and humanity, I think everyone who goes to this profession understands this. And it is very important for the students not to work out of hand and remember that they are ordinary people. Mental health suffers from overload. And it should be strong for every doctor.

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