The role of the medical student is a confusing one, and not just for the student, but for the rest of the team, for other healthcare professionals, and also for patients. Once, before afternoon rounds on general surgery, I was on a computer in the hallway looking up lab results for patients, dressed in surgical scrubs and the usual short white coat. I was approached then by a patient’s family asking if I was the nurse for a particular room. I politely said I wasn’t but that I could help them find the nurse if they needed. They didn’t need me to after all, so I went back to the computer to continue with my work. Within the next minute, a nurse on the floor asked me if I was the resident with the plastic surgery team. I again politely declined. Later that week, in clinic, a patient asked if I was the physician-assistant-in-training, despite having just introduced myself as the medical student. I explained that I was in medical school, which meant that I was a future physician.
This sort of confusion happens multiple times a week, more than I can count. I think there are many reasons why this is the case, including the fact that I’ve been told I look rather young for my age (“Shouldn’t you be in high school?” a patient asked once.), and potentially that I’m also female. (I won’t elaborate on that point here, however, as the topic of gender in medicine deserves its own forthcoming blog post.)
But a big part of it seems to be just inherent to being a medical student. It’s a really weird thing to be! You’re not a doctor, so you’re not qualified to give medical advice or perform major procedures unsupervised. But you’re also supposed to be almost a doctor, which means you’re supposed to be learning how to do things on real patients. You’re also supposed to be helpful to the team’s efforts, which occasionally means doing tasks that are not directly related to patients but are really important to get done–retrieving equipment, finding people, relaying messages. These aren’t specifically “medical” tasks, so it’s understandable that patients and others in the hospital often don’t get who you are, why you’re talking to them, what you need from them, or what service you can offer them. I haven’t yet come up with a great way to explain my role to people or even just to fully always know myself what’s expected of me. But to some extent it’s just an inevitable and odd part of becoming a physician that everyone fumbles through. It’s a little bit like middle school–an important part of getting to the other side, growing, improving, and developing grace, as weird as the process can be sometimes.