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Clinical Rotations Survival Guide

By OnlineMedEd August 28, 2019

Clinical rotations can be an exciting time for medical students, but they can also be among the most stressful experiences in your education. Clinicals are a sign that you’re in the home stretch of your medical studies, and they provide you with hands-on experience in a real healthcare setting. You’re shadowing doctors, learning the ins and outs of the hospital, and even interacting with patients. But this sudden realness can be daunting. You’re putting all your theoretical knowledge into practice, and doctors, residents, and patients are watching you. What if you make a mistake? What if you suddenly forget everything you’ve learned in the last two years? What if you fail to make a good impression on your supervising resident?

First things first: take a deep breath. You didn’t get this far in med school because you didn’t have the drive or talent to succeed in the medical field. Take this survival guide with you on every clinical rotation and put the following seven tips into practice:


Retain the Student Mentality

First and foremost, you’re going to make mistakes during clinicals. You won’t have all the answers, and you’ll see things they never covered in class. For some med students, these facts are hard to come to terms with. But if you accept them now, you’ll be able to walk into your first rotation with a student mentality that will help you learn more than you may have thought possible. Remember, you’re not a resident yet. The attending physicians and residents have a much greater responsibility than you do, and your main job right now is to learn as much as you can.


Research Each Speciality Prior to Your Clinical

Clinical rotations cover a multitude of specialties, including surgery, family medicine, OB-GYN, pediatrics, emergency medicine, internal medicine, and psychiatry. Each specialty focuses on different types of patients, health issues, and treatment options, and it helps to know what to expect with each one before entering the clinical. Knowing a little about the focus area can help you think of questions to ask during the rotation. Your attending physician will be impressed when they see that you’ve done your homework, and you’ll have a greater chance of standing out in all the right ways. 


Keep an Open Mind

Before entering your clinical rotations, you may already have an idea as to which specialty you want to go into after med school. That’s great! However, that doesn’t give you the green light to write off the other rotations as busy work. Try to keep an open mind and learn as much as you can while you have the opportunity. In some cases, med students find they like a different area more than the one they were considering and end up switching their focus. But even if you’re dead set on a specific practice area, your attending physician will view you as a serious med student when you put forth equal effort and take advantage of the chance to learn and advance.


Treat It Like a Job

Wouldn’t it be nice if you got paid for all the work you do during clinical rotations? As a med student, the opposite is true: you’re paying to be there—and it’s not cheap. However, you should still treat the experience like it’s a job, because one day, it will be! Though the following suggestions may sound like basic knowledge, they’re worthy reminders of how you should present yourself as a serious future medical professional:

  • Prioritize first impressions – you only get one chance to make a strong first impression. Create a positive image from the start, and minor mistakes or missteps may be more easily forgiven later.

  • Demonstrate professionalism – though you’re not getting paid for your time, you’re receiving valuable experience that will launch your future career.

  • Be on time – doctors must be on time, so start practicing now to form good habits early.

  • Show your commitment – even if you’re not interested in a particular area, you should still commit yourself 100% to learning. Experience as much as possible while you can because you never know when you might be able to apply what you learn.

  • Come prepared – bring a notepad and pen to avoid being as dependent on your own memory. It’s also helpful to keep a snack within arm’s reach so that hunger won’t pull your focus.

Putting your best foot forward at all times can help you get recognized over other students and give you a leg up later on during your educational journey.


Network with Other Medical Students

There are thousands of med students who have stood in your place, and they can be immensely helpful in preparing you for what’s to come. What is the rotation schedule like? What did they like or not like about it? What should you know going into each rotation? Getting a heads up not only helps you feel prepared but also makes you look prepared when rotations start.


Ask Questions

Going into clinicals, you likely don’t have much hospital experience. This is a new experience, and you’re going to have questions. How do I label this culture? How do I use the fax machine? What does this sign mean? Take advantage of this time to ask about everything you want to know. Keep a running list of questions you encounter and see if you can answer them yourself. If you can’t, try not to bombard the same person with all your questions at once. Space them out, then write down the answer so you can review it until you learn it.


Make Time for Yourself

Med school isn’t easy, but getting burned out is. Though it’s hard to break away from the books, it’s important to treat yourself along the way for all your hard work. Go see a movie, take a yoga class, or even take a walk around campus to clear your mind. It can do wonders to keep you motivated and help you believe in yourself.


Get Help Along the Journey!

Don’t let clinical rotations get you down! You’ve worked hard to make it to your third year of med school, and getting the right support can help you finish the journey. 


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