Like it or not, medical school is full of tests. Some are useful. Others seem pointless. In a recent clinical assessment, I received important feedback that let me know that when it comes to patient care, I’m on the right track. I tell the story in this essay, which was originally published in the online magazine The American. You can see the original version here.
Be my doctor
On every medical school rotation, we have at least one OSCE, the clunky acronym for Objective Structured Clinical Examination. If I had my way, “structured” would be replaced by “stressful,” because that’s what it really is.
You’re asked to interview and examine a standardized patient (aka actor) while being both videotaped and watched live by real doctors, usually the people in charge of your clerkship, and your final grade. The observers work from a checklist (that’s where the “objective” comes from, I think) to measure your performance. Your “patient” has a different checklist.
I confess that being watched, videotaped, and assessed against a detailed to-do list makes me nervous, which makes me more likely to forget things that I otherwise wouldn’t.
Two weeks into my eight-week internal medicine rotation, I endured a particularly stressful OSCE. You had 20 minutes to conduct a focused history and a physical exam. (In an encounter with a patient, “focused” means tailoring your questions and physical exam to respond to the person’s “chief complaint.”) You’re given five minutes to discuss your diagnostic impression and develop a plan. On the spot, you needed to figure out what was wrong and what to do about it. After which you left the exam room, had five more minutes to organize your thoughts, before explaining your findings, assessment, and plan to the observing “attending” in a three-minute presentation, morning rounds-style.
Unlike most OSCEs, you didn’t know what was on the checklist ahead of time. As with most OSCEs, you had to make good on a certain number of items to pass. If you didn’t pass, you had to repeat the exercise.
Anxiety is built into this territory. But once I get going, I’m fine. Early nerves give way to clinical instincts.
This OSCE was no different. About 10 minutes before we each met our patient, we received a clinical scenario along with some lab values and vital signs. After reading up and thinking through what I’d ask and do, I met with and assessed the patient to synthesize her signs, symptoms, and story with what I’d read. I asked my questions, examined her, and quickly thought through my differential diagnosis. I then presented her with the most likely diagnosis, along with my proposed treatment. As a medical student, I informed her I would discuss everything with my team before proceeding.
I asked if she had any questions. Though she’d been hospitalized with pneumonia, she was most anxious about her breast cancer, which had been diagnosed earlier. She told me she wanted her family involved in understanding what was happening. I was impressed with her acting skills – tears seemed to well up in her eyes as she lay supine on the examining table. I put my hand on her shoulder and reassured her we would bring her family in, and together discuss everyone’s questions.
I was about to continue comforting her when a loudspeaker announcement abruptly informed me the encounter was over. I should leave the room immediately. I felt myself flush with frustration. My patient was in distress, on the verge of tears, and I had to abandon her — something I’d never do to a real patient.
I followed protocol: I left, thought through my findings, and returned to present them before my attending and the patient. Then came the feedback. The physician asked how I thought I’d done. I said I thought my physical exam skills were rusty since I hadn’t been practicing them much since an earlier rotation several months before. The “patient,” who apparently has been performing this same OSCE for years, emphatically disagreed. She said I’d just performed one of the most thorough physical exams she’d experienced in this OSCE go-round. More significantly, at least to me, the patient told me she wanted me as her doctor. “What kind of medicine are you going into?” she asked me. “Are you going to be practicing in New York?”
Yes, the patient was an actor, but I got the feeling she was only half joking. She said she felt genuine empathy and compassion from me, things she doesn’t sense from everyone. When she was distressed, I stood closer to her (but not too close) and actually touched her. I offered to bring in her family to answer their questions. She described me as confident but not arrogant. For example, while I was sure of myself in explaining my diagnostic impression and treatment plan, I also emphasized my role as a medical student, and how I’d first confirm everything with my team. She said I had a sense of humor – I’d made an impromptu joke about hospitals based on something she said, and I’d gotten her to laugh. She told me I was a good listener, explained things well, and made her feel comfortable.
Her compliments disarmed me. All I could say was “thank you.” Both patient and preceptor also offered constructive criticism, which is essential so I can improve.
But when it comes to improvement, compliments can be just as important as criticism. My patient’s invigorating observations reminded me that I was on the right track and needed to stay on it.
The experience was a boost on a number of levels. Maybe it’ll help calm my nerves before the next OSCE. Maybe it’ll help bolster my confidence when I finally treat real-life patients on my own. Though I haven’t even graduated from medical school yet, I now know there’s at least one person who wants me as her doctor.