Starting clinical medicine marks an exciting and terrifying milestone in your medical school career. I remember facing it with an eagerness to put some of the theoretical minutiae of medicine to use and a fear that I would get lost in the buzz of the hospital.
I remember coming home following my first day on placement and being ready to cry. I had been given what seemed like a jam-packed timetable and directions to various wards and clinics.
How would I find time to study all the theory of each specialty while getting used to seeing real-life patients? Who was who on the ward? How would I navigate clinics, ward rounds and theatre lists without feeling like a spare part? I came to find that with a bit of time, a plan, and some help from peers who had been through it all before, it wasn’t long before I learnt the ropes.
As time went on and I was able to get to know the friendly faces on the ward – and they got to know me – I became more confident with stepping on to a ward and more efficient in managing my time and my learning.
Being in my third and final year of medicine on the wards, I decided to take what I learned from my time on clinical placements and bring together a helpful guidance resource for BMA NI student members, full of top tips and advice for those just beginning their journey from lecture theatre to surgical theatre. You can download it here
Take time to plan
The main advice I can give to students about to embark on a clinical placement is not to panic! Take time to settle yourself and plan. When on a specific attachment, structure your revision around this. If you are seeing the patients in real life and then reading about their pathology in the evenings, you have technically revised it twice!
When making notes about clinical presentation, causes, investigations and management, revise the histopathology and other key aspects of preclinical medicine alongside it to cement your knowledge. Then find a question bank and test yourself! This method will really consolidate your knowledge of the material.
We are all too aware of how busy our NHS staff are, so it can be easy to feel like more of a hindrance than a help. However, there are many things that you can do to help the team that will in turn aid your learning.
Going on ward rounds and getting the notes for the team, reading out the patient’s NEWS score, CRP, white cell count, etc will help to familiarise you with the layout of the ward, where to find notes to write up cases and how to navigate a NEWS chart and other clinical documents.
It will also help you to learn key skills for becoming a junior doctor. Additionally, the more helpful and eager you seem, the more helpful and eager the team will be in teaching you.
If you find an interesting case on the ward round, ask a junior doctor if you can go back to take a history and examination yourself and present them to the doctor afterwards. Try taking an OSCE mark scheme with you for this or read it beforehand to perfect your skills.
No better way to learn
I know that it is something that your university tells you all the time, but you will never remember any pathology as well as that which you can link to a patient experience (I thought it was a ploy to ensure attendance!).
In your exams, you won’t remember the reams of notes that you wrote about a rash, or the spider diagrams that you made about the acute abdomen, but you will remember the time that you went with the team to clerk a new patient in ED, took a history and examined them, how the patient looked and felt and what the team were able to do to help.
So please don’t ditch placement for the books and take advantage of this amazing privilege to be involved in the best and worst moments of someone’s life.
Finally, I would add that it has never been more important at this stage in your medical student career to plan time to relax. Set yourself a set time that you are going to study in the evenings and for how many days per week and stick to this. When this time is over, watch a movie, go for a run, go for coffee with your friends – do something non-medical. And remember that BMA wellbeing is there to support you if you find you are really struggling.
I wish you all the best of luck with this new stage of your journey and only hope that it confirms that medicine was the right choice for you.
Anna Murray is a member of NIMSC and a final year med student and Queen’s University Belfast