Often when I was first talking to and working with patients I felt bad for them. As a student there is always someone there who could do a better job than you whether that be the resident, fellow, or attending, and instead the patient is stuck with you. Sometimes your stethoscope (or hand) is cold or your questions annoy them (how dare you, of course, they have never smoked, drank or done drugs). Naturally, most patients are sick, and many sick people want to be left alone. All of these made me feel slightly bad for the patients I saw.
Several things changed how I view my interactions with patients. First, they are not receiving lower quality care by any means. If anything, they have another set of eyes and someone who is attentive to their problems. The expertise of the attendings and the appropriate care will all be provided regardless of whether the student is present. The one thing that the patient is giving the student is time. In very few cases have patients ever seemed to mind that my questions and exam take longer than someone more experienced, or that I might have to pop back in at a later time to obtain a piece of information I missed initially. In fact many patients appreciate the extra time and the extra efforts you go to. Second, the thing that most sick patients want more than to be left alone is for someone to care. Listening to someone’s story, to how long the disease has caused them pain, or to how many doctors they have seen can be its own form of therapy. As the saying goes the job of a physician is to cure rarely, to treat often, and to comfort always. Students and patients often have time in the hospital during which they are not busy and listening to the story can be a key aspect of comforting. Third, you are doing this for the patients you will see in the future. When it takes a little longer to hear a murmur in a patient’s heart or the patient has to take a couple of extra deep breaths so you can hear the wheeze, it is for the patients who will be seen and treated by you in 10 years.
So instead of feeling bad for patients, I appreciate the extra time I have with them and the experience they provide me for treating patients in the future. And I am thankful for their patience with me and their gift to the patients I will treat in the future.