By Elizabeth Gabel, MD

Dr. Gabel

We were all students at some point. A career in medicine is to never stop learning, and we continue to be students long after our graduation date. But as physicians, we are also teachers. We teach our patients about their diabetes; we teach our communities about the benefits of getting their flu shot. Many of us take the next step and teach residents and medical students. And yet, I find myself learning something new each time I am the teacher. These are three things that I am reminded of daily while teaching medical students:

#1 – You do learn A LOT in medical school.

I have heard medical school described as a “drinking out of a fire hose.” I remember being a first-year medical student and, the first few months, I constantly felt like I was drowning. As I moved through the years of medical school, however, the floodgates seemed to be more manageable. I don’t think the amount of information changed between the years, but the ability to stay afloat becomes easier. As the years go by, students process and synthesize the information more quickly. The competencies build on themselves, learning strategies are optimized, and students develop the skills to sail through the seas of knowledge with greater confidence. Only after being able to teach have I realized how much I have learned.

#2 – You will never know everything in medicine.

“The more you know, the less you know.” Sometimes this bothers students and residents as they feel they must know it all. I have always been very comfortable saying “I don’t know.” Over the years, I hope that I say it less often, but it is still a part of my regular vocabulary as a family medicine provider. I try to know what I know. I try harder to know what I don’t know.

Pre-clinical students bring on a whole new level of “not knowing.” This foundation of clinical practice known as the basic sciences is buried so far back in my training. As I started teaching the first- and second-year curriculum, I quickly realized there was a lot that I didn’t know anymore. I have spent days re-learning the anatomy and physiology of a topic in preparation for the questions after a lecture. Despite all my reading, nothing could prepare me for the inevitable surprising questions students would come up with.

On the other hand, clinical students push me to stay informed on the newest guidelines and treatment options. If I haven’t read the most up-to-date information, students often have and are eager to share. And when they are ready to practice these guidelines, I know we can help develop the art of patient care together.

#3 – Not every student will choose your specialty.

Soon after I started working with students, I ran into one of my residency faculty members at a conference. After catching up, he said, “I don’t know how you do it. I find it challenging to work with students who don’t want anything to do with primary care. How do you motivate them?”

I have thought about this often over the years as I have worked with future surgeons, hospitalists and specialists. The final grade is a motivating factor for many but on a rare occasion, you run into a student that has zero interest in family medicine. While my lofty, unattainable goal could be to inspire every student to choose a career of family medicine or primary care, I know that will never happen. Instead, my goal is to inspire every student to respect the challenges that face family medicine providers while appreciating the variety that the specialty offers. If a student is interested in orthopedics, let’s talk sports medicine or how a patient’s diabetes affects their ability to heal after a joint replacement. If a student is interested in radiation oncology, let’s talk concepts of palliative care or how to advocate for cancer screening in our patients. There is always something to learn within family medicine, which was one of the many reasons I chose the specialty. Not every student will choose a career in family medicine, but every student can learn something during their time with us that affects their future career.

As a final thought, in my future years as a teacher and student, I hope we can continue learning from each other so that fire hose is easier to drink out of. And whether it’s through the basic sciences, the art of medicine, or in saying “I don’t know,” let’s learn together and find meaning to all our experiences. My involvement in medical school teaching started after a simple email exchange. There are many opportunities to get involved in medical school education here in Peoria: ELITE, DOCS, and third year clerkship instruction (among others). If you haven’t learned from a student lately, maybe it’s time to start. I would be happy to help you take that plunge. All it takes is an email.

About the Author

Dr. Elizabeth Gabel is an Assistant Professor of Clinical Family Medicine. She can be reached at [email protected].