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Mumbles of a Medic: Work Experience – Is it Worth It?

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Column by aspiring med. student, Sahaj Kaur

As seen in Pegasus Pages (December 2012).

As the scary prospect of university applications looms for SFC1, it’s time for everyone to start thinking about Work Experience (especially Medics and Vets). The holidays are precious and ‘golden’ time for all of us, so in a way it may seem irksome to spend a whole week doing Work Experience. 

Is work experience really worth it, then? Is it really such a big deal? To the lazy and the procrastinating beings among us, including myself, I have bad news: Work Experience is absolutely imperative! I know personally, from the placements that I have done, that I have benefited from seeing the real world, grown more knowledgeable, and most of the time, they can be very fun (despite the 8.30 am wake-ups).

I know you’ve heard, ‘It’s important to see whether you actually want to do Medicine’ before, but it’s painstakingly true. Whatever your compulsion for wanting to do Medicine is, it can sometimes be misled by a false impression of what being a Doctor and working with the sick and elderly entails. It’s very important to know early on that Medicine is in fact for you. You need to have this realisation now, not years along the line when you realise that you have gone through the whole system and wasted many precious years (not to mention money). Notable examples are Jay Sean and Emeli Sandé, who both dropped out at the later stages of Med school, obviously they were much luckier than many other fellow drop outs.

As well as helping you make this decision, Work Experience really lifts the curtain on Medicine as a career and reveals some shocking truths which could not have been anticipated by an outsider, something that I found out on my placements. If any of you have ever tried to secure a placement without inside help, you would have been exposed to the sheer competitiveness of medicine! Even getting a week in a hospital was near impossible!

I don’t know about anyone else but I always used to have this impression of Doctors as being ‘perfect’ beings, that they always know what to do and that generally Medicine is very clear cut. Let me tell you, that is far from correct. When I was younger this was what motivated me to study science and was one of the reasons that I enjoyed it, because there were no ‘grey’ areas. As I grew up and climbed the ladder of education, I was told that we can never really be sure of or know anything. That was my own paradigm shift in the way that I viewed the world and a work placement will definitely provide you with a similar one for what you think being a Doctor entails.

It’s not a process of ‘identify problem, fix problem, live happily ever after’ as I used to naïvely think. This was something that was very clear on one placement which I did; many consultants were confused by the most complicated cases. Sometimes they had to make difficult decisions about the best course of treatment, despite not being certain what would work. This can be reflected across all types of medicine; there is never one clear-cut path on how to treat a patient. The human body is very complex and inevitably, sometimes there are failures. One of the most important skills in being a Doctor is to learn to accept and learn from your mistakes. A Cardiologist once told me that he missed a heart murmur in a very young patient, which ended up as a life lost. When I asked him whether it upset him when things like that happened, he said ‘of course’, but it was very important to not take too much on board emotionally, otherwise it’s very hard to turn up to work every morning. And we need our Doctors to turn up to work every morning.

Experiencing care from the other side makes you realise all the qualities that make a good Doctor. Yes, a good team worker, academically able, etc. However, one of the most notable qualities is being able to judge and juggle the fine and delicate balance between being empathetic, yet, at the same time, not being too sentimental. When you have to deliver bad news, the patient wants to see that you understand their pain and that you deliver your condolences, but they certainly don’t want you to break down crying in front of them. Another very key part of this job is being a ‘people’ person, if you don’t like talking to your patients… you’re going to have a bad time communicating with them.

Apart from all the very important things that I have mentioned which Work Experience taught me, I also got to see some very exciting endoscopies, bone surgery, and live Caesareans, which is always fun!

Photography: by glenmcbethlaw on Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

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