Much-needed encouragement

by Lorien E. Menhennett

I’ve finished the first two weeks of my internal medicine clerkship, with six to go. On this clerkship, more than any other, it’s easy to feel clueless, since medicine deals in the entire body — every single organ system. As a medical student, I get asked questions many times every day to probe my knowledge and get me thinking about this field that is both fascinating and overwhelming. It feels like my most frequent answer is “I don’t know.” But I was recently reminded that while I have much to learn, I’ve come a lot farther than I realize.

About a week ago, a second-year medical student shadowed me during my morning pre-rounds routine. Together, we reviewed the charts of my patients, looking at their vital signs, labs, imaging, urine output, and other notable events that had occurred since I left the previous day. I’ve become pretty familiar with the electronic medical record (EMR) system now, but every action I took — selecting the correct tab to show the vital signs for example, or figuring out when the last dose of a medication was given — required a tutorial.

I showed him how to use templates in the EMR that automatically pull data like vital signs and lab results from the patient’s chart directly into your note. I started to show him how to write my daily “SOAP” note using one of these templates. And he asked, “Can you go over what a SOAP note is, exactly?” I was glad to, of course. (For those of you who are curious, here is what SOAP stands for. S = Subjective information from your patient about how they are feeling, such as pain. O = Objective data such as vital signs from the chart. A = Assessment of the patient’s condition. P = Plan for the day in terms of treatment, diagnostic studies, etc.)

Without thinking about it, I then described one of my patients as “being on PD.” I saw the look of confusion in his face, and realized I took for granted knowing that “PD” stands for “peritoneal dialysis.” So the next time I came to some medical abbreviation, I made sure to clarify its meaning.

There were lots of things I explained about treating patients too. Like how we put most patients on a bowel regimen in the hospital to make sure they have regular bowel movements. Or that when a person who has diabetes is hospitalized, we take them off their oral diabetes medications and put them on sliding scale insulin because they’re likely not eating the same way as they do at home.

We also saw my patients together, and I showed him how to do a brief, focused physical exam targeting potential findings related to each patient’s condition, and also assessing basic things like heart and lung function.

Having second-year students shadow us third-year students is a new part of the curriculum. It’s aimed at helping the second-years transition more smoothly into starting their own clerkships, which they will do in January or February. I hope all my explanations were helpful to my shadow. I know they would have helped me when I was a second-year student. As I was talking with him, I thought back nearly 9 months to mid-February when I started my first clerkship, OB-GYN, to when I knew none of these things either. To when I didn’t know how to write a SOAP note, or how to find things in the electronic medical record, or how to do a focused physical exam. I realized that I’ve come a long way in the last 9 months, much farther than I give myself credit for.

This encouragement couldn’t have come at a better time. Medicine is still overwhelming. But a little less so. And I have a newfound confidence in my ability to make significant strides in the remaining six weeks.