Top 5 questions people ask new medical students

1) “I’ve been noticing [bizarre growth or random symptom]. What do you think this is?”

I have no idea. I’m not a doctor. I’ve only had a couple months of medical education, almost all related to anatomy, not disease or diagnosis. So if you want to know what side your spleen is on, or which muscles wag a dog’s tail, I can help. (The left side, and the coccygeus muscles, which people have, too.) If you want medical advice, you should ask a doctor. I won’t be one for four years.

2) “Is dissection fun?”

No. Anatomy lab was many things: Amazing, detail-oriented, absorbing, sometimes disturbing and occasionally tedious. But I didn’t find it fun; it’s a bit too disquieting for me. That said, I think some of my classmates may have found it fun, especially those who want to be surgeons.

Mostly, dissection is a really good way to learn where everything is in the body and how it connects. That’s information you want your doctor to have down pat. I don’t think you need to dissect to learn anatomy. Some medical schools have experimented with using teaching tools other than cadavers, such as plastic models. But getting to dissect and see others’ work in lab really drives home the three-dimensional organization of the body parts we read about, as well as how much that basic plan can vary from person to person. So anatomy lab helped me learn more, and was an unforgettable experience, but it wasn’t fun.

3) “Do you get to wear a white coat?”

Yes, but it’s a different white coat than real doctors wear. The next time you see a doctor, notice that their white coat hangs down to somewhere around their mid-thigh or knees. Our medical student coats end around the belt line. They call them — and us — “short coats.” I suspect that most patients don’t notice this difference, but hospital staff do. And that can be a blessing. If a wizened M.D. barrages me with complex medical questions, I can just grab the hem of my jacket and say, “short coat.”

4) “Do you see patients?”

See, yes. Treat, no. Traditionally, med students saw few patients until their third years. But an increasing number of medical schools are giving new students experience with patients. And OHSU has been one of the leaders in this trend, giving its first-year students patient experience for many years now.

Specifically, every first- and second-year student spends one afternoon a week with a preceptor: a doctor in the community — not all at OHSU — who agrees to help teach us the ropes. We get to sit in on patient visits and treatment, with the patient’s permission (you can always say no). And we get to practice some of our skills, at our preceptor’s discretion. Some students mostly watch and learn. On the other hand, one of my friends who worked with a pediatrician did a complete physical and medical history on a 13-year-old boy in his second week of clinic.

5) “It is hard?”

Yes, but not the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Granted, I haven’t been at this very long. But I had harder weeks at work than I’ve yet had in med school. I also had more easy weeks at work. What medical school is, at least so far, is consistently challenging. I spend a lot of time in class, in lab, reading and memorizing. It’s steady work. I think any reasonably intelligent person with good people skills and an interest in health could do this, and do it well. You need stamina, more than smarts. Caffeine helps, too.