“He who studies medicine without books sails an uncharted sea, but he who studies medicine without patients does not to go to sea at all.”

Such were the words of Sir William Osler, the Father of Modern Medicine, and most healthcare professionals will concur that their best learning experiences came not from textbooks, but from their patients.

The sentiment has helped shape present-day medical education. Gone are the days where students quietly huddle in the clinics to observe a doctor at work – medical apprentices now assume more integral roles as part of the healthcare team, and are more directly involved in patient care.

Much to the advantage of the budding doctors, patients, too, benefit from integrated healthcare that involves medical students.

A good eye for catching medical errors

According to a review conducted by Dr Samuel Seiden, an assistant professor of Anaesthesiology from The University of Chicago, and his team, medical students have an important role in ensuring patient safety.

Stemming from their curiosity and lack of knowledge, students are inclined to spend more time with patients in order to attain a thorough medical history. Their greater attention to detail allows them to inadvertently pick up important information of the patient’s physical, mental or social health – some of which other doctors may have overlooked – which can ultimately affect patient care.

“You’re likely only one of three patients who we’re taking care of at any single time,” wrote Steven Zhang, a third-year medical student at Stanford Medicine, on the university’s forum.

“That devoted attention combined with our medical naiveté will push us to great lengths to ensure that you receive the best care possible,” he said, adding that their inexperience will push them to meticulously pay attention to the patient, from his medication list and lab results, to newly occurring symptoms.

As a result, medical students are often able to catch medical errors better than other members in the team.

Interestingly, out of 76% of students who have observed a medical error, only half reported the incident to a doctor, according to Seiden’s study.

This is likely due to the medical student’s lack of confidence that resulted in a fear of speaking up, and highlights the need for more emphasis in training students to effectively identify and communicate medical errors to improve patient safety.

Holistic and up-to-date patient care

As medical students are in training, their supervising clinicians often take the time to ask them questions, assess their examination or procedural skills, or to address any doubts that the students may have. The extra time allows patients the opportunity to voice any additional concerns that they may have, and the undivided attention can holistically improve patient care.

“As a result, most patients feel less rushed and more able to express their concerns without the regular time constraints,” said Dr Sheila Wijayasinghe, the medical director at the Immigrant Women’s Health Centre.

Medical students also spend extra time in the ward without their team in order to follow-up with their patients’ progress.

“To have a medical student on your team means you’ll have an extra visitor during the day, an extra companion to talk to when the nurses and residents are too busy,” Zhang added.

According to Wijayasinghe, patients whose healthcare teams involve medical students also benefit by receiving the most up-to-date care, as students are constantly keeping themselves updated in preparation for their examinations.

“We’ll search the recent issues of medical journals for the latest cutting-edge treatment for your illness, even if it’s the run-of-the-mill flu or chest pain,” Zhang also said.

Wholly on their own, medical students are certainly inexperienced to provide patient care.

However, as the students overcome their own fears and anxiety of facing the clinical environment, patients need not be as apprehensive of their presence in the ward, because the bottom line is, as members of the healthcare team, medical students can definitely improve the quality of patient care. MIMS

Read more:
Bullies of the hospital vs. medical students
Teaching medical students of the future: High-tech is the way to go
Interdisciplinary training: The benefits of training medical students with other healthcare professionals
3 misconceptions medical students have about becoming a doctor