You’re shadowing on the wards, and you’re following the physician around for half a day, seeing all the acute care patients. You walk into one of the patients’ rooms and the physician starts asking the patient how he’s doing. He is suffering from pneumonitis, a complication of the chemotherapy he received, along with Merkel cell carcinoma. He is clearly in extreme distress, and cannot even move in the bed because he is suffering from so much pain. While the nurse and the oncologist ask him questions and check his labs/listen to his heart and lungs, what do you, as a medical student who just completed his/her first year, do?
Imposter syndrome is a very common consequence of being a medical student. On one hand, you are learning more information than you have ever learned in your life, but on the other hand, you feel inadequate compared to the highly trained professionals around you. I admit to feeling incompetent whenever the attending physician asked me questions that I, in theory, should have known the answer to, but could not recall amongst the firehose of information that was dumped on me during school. Not being able to answer questions initially led me to make out like a fly on the wall during my first few shadowing experiences, be it the primary care clinic or the oncology wards. I felt as if I was a hindrance, not being able to provide care and taking up space in the clinic rooms, uttering only a few words to introduce my role as a student and observer. It was not until recently that I started being more active while shadowing physicians because I realized that it’s what they want us to do.
I was always surprised in the beginning whenever I would stand quietly in the corner, and physicians would beckon me over to the bedside table to perform physical exam skills on their patients. They would also pause while talking to patients to explain to me more about the patients’ conditions, as well as why they selected a certain treatment. I realized that unlike when we were pre-meds, doctors expect us to play an active role when we’re in the clinic with them because they WANT us to learn, and they enjoy teaching. Being able to see patients and play a role in caring for them with such little training is a huge privilege, and I now make sure to take advantage of any opportunity that is presented to me. On wards and in the breast cancer clinic, I stand right beside the doctor and listen with them to patients’ lungs and heart, as well as palpate masses. Prior to medical school, I was slightly intimidated by how professional and competent doctors were and tried not to interfere too much whenever I was with them, but I have gained a great appreciation for what amazing mentors they are to students.
Imposter syndrome is not something to be ashamed of, but it is definitely something that needs to be conquered. I think the best way to approach it is to realize that although you are a student, you know a lot more than you think, and you are also in school to learn, not only in the classroom but in the clinic as well. Additionally, faculty physicians love teaching students and want to see us succeed, and certainly do not expect us to play such passive roles while shadowing them. As a student, it is our right and privilege to learn from those trained in the field, actively ask questions, refine skills in the clinic, and assist physicians whenever appropriate. Optimize your learning, and don’t let imposter syndrome attenuate the skills and knowledge you can gain from experiences outside the classroom.