Medicine From The Trenches

Experiences from undergradute, graduate school, medical school, residency and beyond.

Surgical Clerkship 101 (Part 3)

This is the last in my series about surgical clerkship. In this essay, I thought I would address some of the things that can go wrong and present some strategies to fix them or do “damage control”.

Misunderstandings or Miscommunication – Communication in medicine – any specialty- is a key component. Learning to listen carefully to your patients, your colleagues and your teachers is of paramount importance. Sometimes anxiety or time prevents you from actually “hearing” the message. This happens to everyone and especially to people who are trying to juggle several tasks at the same time. If you make a mistake, own up to it, apologize and move on. Don’t internalize and don’t personalize anything on any clinical rotation. It is very easy to miscommunicate when you are under pressure and in unfamiliar territory. When you find that you have misunderstood something or that someone has misunderstood you, acknowledge the mistake and keep moving forward. Forgive yourself, forgive others and move on as misunderstandings/mis-communications are part of being human.

Not telling the Truth – This goes along with miscommunication and mistakes. Don’t lie about anything. If you didn’t check something, acknowledge your mistake and let it go. Make a note to yourself not to repeat the mistake and leave it at that. Many times, especially when you are tired, you will forget something. Again, make notes to yourself if you forget something or did not do something but don’t lie about anything that you did or did not accomplish. Your ”word”  in medicine is golden and your career, your patients’ lives  and you colleagues trust all depend on your word and its truthfulness.

Grave errors – I remember an incident when I was an intern. A fourth-year medical student was attempting to re-wire a central line and made a fatal error that caused the death of a patient. In the defense of the fourth-year student, he/she was not supervised and wasn’t familiar with central line rewiring. In defense of the resident on whose service this student was rotating, he/she did not know that the student had not performed the procedure unsupervised. In this case, the student and resident was reprimanded but both owned up to this grave error. The worst problem is that this student will carry this incident for the rest of his/her life.

In short, never ever perform a task or procedure unsupervised unless you are sure of what you are doing. In any procedure, especially the invasive ones, you should be able to explain the procedure to the person who is supervising you along with any complications that can arise and how you will handle them. When you are learning procedures, learn them from preparation, performance, complications and management of complications. The learning curve for things like central lines is usually 10 supervised before you do the procedure unsupervised.

Personality Conflicts – There will be people on your team (nursing personnel, fellow students, interns, attending physicians) that you will not get along with. In my opinion, personality conflicts have no role in medicine as they are counterproductive to good patient care. When I have encountered a personality conflict, I will defer my feelings as long as the care of my patient is not compromised. In short, my business and my job is to be able to work with each member of the team as professionally as possible for the benefit of the patient. As I have said in other essays, the clock ticks and you will not be around this person for the rest of your life. Be sure that you don’t burn any bridges behind you.

Another rule of mine is that I never discuss my colleagues with anyone except the person that I am having the conflict with. I don’t have time for gossip and I never allow negative comments about my colleagues from nursing or other people. One of my jobs as I have moved through residency has been to evaluate others. In these evaluations, I have readily admitted when I have a personality conflict and tried not to allow this to interfere with my evaluation. If I place something negative on an evaluation, I always cite the reason and what I believe the person can do to improve the situation. I also do not place negative information on an evaluation unless I have warned the person and asked them to correct the behavior which is the object of an evaluation in the first place. In short, check your ego at the door when it comes to patient care.

Time Management – There are 24-hours in a day and you do need rest at some point. Don’t try to ignore your body’s signals when you are tired. Manage your time so that you get some rest (it’s never going to be enough) and take care of your physical needs (eating, hydration). When you start a new rotation, you won’t be as efficient as when you end the rotation because you don’t know the procedures. Pay close attention to your interns and residents and ask for help. Never be too proud or too afraid to admit when you are overwhelmed. Also, avoid drugs to “keep you going” as these often bring on personality changes that can cause problems.

Most chief residents and interns will allow you to rest when there is nothing of educational value going on. If you are told to leave (go home), do what you are told to do. Don’t hang around the hospital but leave. If you are not tired, go to the library and study or go home and study but don’t hang around. You won’t get too many opportunities to “leave early” on most surgery rotations. If something is going on that you want to observe, ask your intern or resident before you go off and observe. Don’t ever leave one service to “hang out” with another without permission from your intern/resident and the agreement of the intern/resident of the service that you are “hanging out” with.

Helping Your Fellow Students – If your are efficient at getting your work done, help your fellow students if they need it. Your fellow students are your colleagues and sometimes they just need a hand at some small chore. If you are able to lend this hand, do so.  Share information with your fellow students if you have something that is useful to the team.  Your fellow students are not your competition at this point. Try to do what you can for the good of everyone. If someone has an emergency, offer to switch their call (let your chief resident know) and do so if you can. You never know when you might need the favor returned.

If one of your fellow students mistakenly keeps trying to manage your patients, show off to the residents and attendings, speak to this person about their behavior. If they continue in this aggressive behavior, let the intern/resident know what is going on. I can tell you from experience that quite often, the chief resident is aware of what is happening and will deal with the problem. Your job on any clerkship is to learn as much as you can. If someone, fellow student or resident, is interfering with this process, the clerkship manager/dean should be made aware of the situation. Ask for a meeting and come prepared with examples of how your education is being compromised. Offer solutions to the problem too. As I said above, personality conflicts have no role in medicine but nothing should interfere with your learning. Make sure that you outline that problem and depersonalize it before you present it. Most of the time, learning interference problems can be solved by good and honest communication as opposed to “running to the clerkship manager/dean”. Reserve going outside the team for things that you cannot solve within the team.

Beware of the fellow student who is “going into surgery” and feels the need to scrub any cases that he/she deems interesting. Do the cases that are assigned to you and don’t let your fellow students take your cases. If this is happening on a regular basis, that is, you have scrubbed 15 hernias and nothing else while your colleagues are getting all of the interesting cases, check with your chief resident. On the other hand, if you are just scrubbing the “easier cases” so that your inpatient list is short, your grade may suffer. Don’t be afraid to tackle a complex patient and a complex case. You will be surprised at how much you can learn by digging in and taking on the assignment.

Attitude – I have said that attitude is everything in clinical medicine. Approach each rotation with the attitude that you will master what you need. You don’t have to “love” everything that you are doing but you do need to be able to give your patients your best work regardless of whether or not you love the rotation or anticipate entering the specialty.

Ask for feedback early and often. No one was born knowing how to perform on a rotation. A five-minute “how am I doing conference” with your intern and resident is not a bad idea early in the rotation. Listen to what they have to say and make notes of what you need to improve. Practice your skills and add to them. Keep a running list of procedures that you have done complete with the names of patients, date of procedure and supervising physician.

Problems in the OR – Don’t get into a ”pissing match” with any of the Operating Room personnel. If a scrub person tells you that you are contaminated, step away from the field and take care of it with a “thanks for pointing this out” attitude. I can tell you from personal experience that some OR personnel will try to ”get to you” because you are male, female, human, and other characteristics. Let this stuff go as long as they are not interfering with your knowledge. As an assigned medical student, you have a role in every case that you scrub. You are not to be ”pushed out of the way” by anyone. If this happens, discuss it with your attending or chief resident after the case but don’t get into a shoving match during a case. This rotation is part of your medical school education and you are paying good money for this experience. Don’t allow anyone to compromise your learning experience.

If you feel “faint” in the OR, step back from the table. You can just say, “I need step back” and everyone knows what is happening. The circulator will usually stick a stool under your before you fall. It also goes without saying that you should never go into a case with a full bladder or an empty stomach. Keep some kind of a snack in your coat pocket and keep hydrated too. If you are feeling ill, don’t scrub especially if you have a fever. Explain the situation to your resident/attending and don’t scrub the case. If you are “sick” for every case, your grade may suffer but on at least one occasion, students DO get sick and should not be in the OR.

Remember that too much caffeine will make your hands shake. I have found from experience that caffeine doesn’t alleviate fatigue and doesn’t make you more alert if you are exhausted. Things that help me fight fatigue are rest, hydration, good physical conditioning and fresh air. A cup or two of coffee/tea is not going to hurt you but downing cases of cola or pots of coffee/tea will not help you and may compromise your health, not to mention the diuretic effect of caffeine. Use this drug with caution and avoid overuse.

Grades – You should know ahead of time, how your grade is going to be calculated for any rotation. Be sure that you are not neglecting the projects and performance objectives of your rotation. Go back and look at your clerkship objectives weekly to be sure that you are accomplishing what you need to accomplish. If you have been assigned to a Cardiothoracic team, be sure that you are not neglecting your reading when it comes to hepatobiliary conditions. Your shelf exam is going to cover all aspects of general surgery, trauma, critical care, orthopedics and cardiothoracic surgery. Be sure that you neglect nothing.

Be sure that you continue to hone your diagnostic skills. Even if you are going into primary care, you need to be thoroughly familiar with the diagnosis and treatment of the acute abdomen. In short, you need to be totally familiar with the instances where you need to “consult” surgery. Every case of abdominal pain does not require a surgical consult and you will quickly lose the respect of your surgical colleagues if you consult them before you have done a complete work-up. Be sure that you know why and what you need from any consultant and are not using them to do your work.

Physical Limitations – If you have physical limitations that do not permit you to scrub the longer cases, the let you chief resident know ahead of time. If you have a chronic condition such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy or other physical limitations, these should have been discussed with your clerkship preceptors and the residents should have been made aware of your condition. These should not be done in front of the rest of the team but you should make sure that the people who need to be aware of your condition are aware. This is especially true if you are pregnant and are having complications. If you become pregnant during your surgical rotation, be sure that your preceptors knows what is happening and is made aware of any problems that encounter. Again, this rotation should not place you (or your/your unborn child’s health) in jeopardy. I have had medical students who were physically challenged who contributed more to the success of my surgical team than some students who didn’t have these limitations. In these cases, I didn’t run the stairs with the team or make that person scrub the ten-hour cases without a break.  In the end, it all evens out.

Remember that your chief resident and attending physician preceptor are not your enemies. You need to have a good working relationship with them and good communication with them. You also need to be proactive about your learning by keeping up with your reading and adding to your skills whenever possible. General Surgery often moves very quickly and decisions must be made with incomplete data gathering. If you don’t understand how a decision was reached, ask the resident to go through this with you.

Have the attitude that you are going to be a valued team player because you are. You are not the “scut person” and you are not on a team to be the “butt of jokes” by your residents or fellow students. Pitch in and refuse to be alienated by things like occasional “locker room humor”. Don’t personalize anything and learn from your mistakes.

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12 August, 2007 - Posted by | academics, difficulty in medical school, medical school coursework, surgery, surgical clerkship

4 Comments »

  1. Excellent essays, Drnjbmd. I begin my surgery rotation in a couple weeks, and I found your insight and advice to be very calming. I especially appreciate what you wrote in this last essay regarding students with physical limitations, as this applies to me personally.

    Comment by Medmunky | 30 September, 2007 | Reply

  2. Read the Review Articles in NEJM and the Case Reports.

    I made drill tapes of things that I needed to drill in order to learn. These drill tapes could be anything from the branches of the maxillary artery to events in the cardiac cycle.

    See my posts on Study Skills. I have a 50-minute attention span so I made use of a kitchen timer for study.

    Comment by drnjbmd | 31 August, 2007 | Reply

  3. Hi there,

    Thank-you for sharing your personal experiences and valuable advice with aspiring doctors! I’m starting my first year of medicine this Fall and I’ve already gathered some excellent hints/tips for studying in med school. I just have a few questions for you:
    – What type of articles from NEMJ did you read to better prepare you for clinicals/boards?
    – How did you structure the ‘lectures’ that you recorded for yourself? And what kind of topics did you record?
    – What are your suggestions for effectively reading large chapters without losing focus/interest?

    Thank you very much!

    Comment by Anon | 29 August, 2007 | Reply

  4. Hi, I just stumbled onto your site and you have a ton of great info here. I am applying to med school in a year and it’s good to know what I’ll be facing and any tips that would make my life a little easier. Thank you and keep writing!

    Comment by Mark | 27 August, 2007 | Reply


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