What Really Makes Medical Students Into “Good” Doctors?

I distinctly remember a particularly stressful meeting with my premedical adviser in college. She scrutinized my course schedule and resume, and (quite negatively) informed me that instead of pursuing a communications minor and taking developmental and sensory biology classes, I should take something that would “help me in medical school,” like biochemistry or Latin. I later spoke to some upperclassmen who had already been accepted into medical school. They each had their own words of wisdom- none of which involved communications classes or the biology classes I had selected for my schedule.

Now quite distraught, I sought council with another professor in the department with whom I was close. He had a very different perspective. Although I can’t remember the exact words, his philosophy was that every student remembers the particular classes he or she took as being most helpful in medical school simply because they don’t know otherwise. Sure, biochemistry questions pop up over and over again on the MCAT and USMLE, but then again so do the signaling pathways and transcription factors that control development. Without taking every possible course, it is impossible for one student to know which class really was most useful when those questions do arise. Standardized tests will be standardized tests; review courses will be review courses; and medical students will be medical students. And medical students will learn all the pertinent information regardless of what classes they did or didn’t take in college. He suggested I take the courses I liked.

I did.

I took communication classes instead of Latin, and learned about the senses and signal transduction pathways instead of Western Blots. I loved all my classes, and did very well. I still got accepted to medical school, and I don’t think I’m struggling any more or less than I would have been otherwise. In fact, with the new MCAT guidelines, and changes to medical school admissions processes, most medical schools have even begun to look more favorably on “non-tradiitional” applications such as my own. Case closed, right?


Now almost two months into my clinical rotations, I’ve been noticing that Medical Students are equally concerned about doing things that will “help them become better doctors.” Before I go any further, I want to acknowledge that you’re probably thinking two things:

  1. Good. They should want to be better doctors!
  2. Big deal. medical students have been padding their resumes for years.

However, the phenomenon I’m talking about goes beyond both of these ideas. These student really want to do what’s best for their patients, and they REALLY want to show their attending physicians and senior residents that they can do this. They are interested in health policy, the future of medicine, medical education, and are hungry for information and advice from their superiors and predecessors. However, if something strays from the beaten path of pre-set medical wisdom, students are quick to dismiss it as being “useless.” Personalities that do not conform or stray from the beaten path are not directly discouraged, but they surely bring with them the possibility of a poor evaluation. Take this blog for instance; when I tell classmates I blog and participate in social media, they are unable to consider how such an activity could possibly help me become a “better doctor” one day. On the other hand, I also enjoy learning about nutrition and fitness. But, since knowledge of these topics is much more amenable to making me a “good doctor,” it is looked on much more favorably by my peers than my Twitter account.

Since when do I need a reward for doing something I love?  I’m not sure if it’s a competition-thing, or whether students only follow a rainbow if they know there’s a metaphorical pot of gold at the end. The demographics of medical professionals might be moving toward a more altruistic and liberal-minded group of professionals, but medical students are still putting all their time and effort into modeling and conforming to the “good doctor” image instead of earning the title of “good doctor” using their own unique talents.

With this said, I wonder whether it’s possible for a medical student (or even a practicing physician), to put his or own personality ahead of the “good doctor” personality? I’m not saying you should actually value yourself more than your patients or obligations, and patient safety should never come second to some personal desire; instead, I’m suggesting that all those seemingly “useless” hobbies or talents may also have a place in your medical practice. I’m sure the physicians out there using social media to interact with their patients will agree that it has made them “better doctors” in some way. Similarly, knowledge of nutrition, baking, animals, sports – you name it – may actually be able to help enhance the way you practice medicine. Surely, if someone truly has a passion for something, he or she can find some meaningful way to incorporate it into their career. Shouldn’t the practice of medicine be something we enjoy?

Of course, I am in no position to say for sure. And I am certainly not about to show up my intern or disagree with my attending just to prove a point. However, I do wonder whether we should stop telling our future physicians what will or won’t make them “good doctors,” and let them figure it out for themselves.

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8 thoughts on “What Really Makes Medical Students Into “Good” Doctors?

  1. Often, doing things that you love leads to other opportunities that could never have been foreseen. The only thing you are certain of is that you get to do what you love! (and what could be better than that?)

    For instance – after college, instead of working in a research lab to pad my resume, I moved across the country to be the head coach of a high school sports team. Little did I know that would lead to a job at a local, major academic medical center thanks to some awesome team supporters and parents. That job (and a good rec) helped me get another job at another major academic center, all the way back on this side of the country where I was fortunate to work on several projects that were published in top specialty journals.

    My premed advisor (who did her best to discourage me from applying to medical school) would have laughed me out of her office if I had claimed that coaching sports would put several published papers on my resume … but it did! If I had decided to work in a research lab at my undergraduate institution, I might still be in the lab “padding” my resume instead of staring my third year at a reputable US allopathic medical school …

  2. Great post Allison! I agree that aspects of social media really can help med students become better doctors by empowering us to take a few moments each day to stop, think, and realize how privileged we are to be in our positions. Hope rotations are going well! :-)

  3. Pingback: “Since When Do I Need A Reward for Doing Something That I love?” « 4th Year, Make Me Proud

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