Medical jargon and understandability

Not long ago, my (non-medical) fiance Luke pointed out, over the years since I’ve been in medical school, that my conversations with my med school friends have become more and more incoherent from his perspective. This isn’t really surprising, considering the huge amount of vocabulary that gets taught, especially within the first 2 years. Like many technical fields, a big part of medicine is learning to speak the language. What sets medicine apart from other jargon-heavy professions, however, is that doctors spend the majority of their time speaking with laypeople who are unfamiliar with that vast vocabulary that we’ve spent years building. The beginning of 3rd year was a bit of culture shock for me, after spending the first 2 years locked away in a lecture hall, when I realized that I had to learn how to communicate effectively with my patients (few of whom had any great measure of health literacy or any sort of higher education). When I first started med school, I thought that learning all the vocabulary in the first place would be the challenge. Now, I’m finding that explaining what I know in simple terms is much harder. Some words and phrases have become so natural to me that I’ve lost sight of whether or not they’re considered “normal” words that most people are familiar with.

For those of you that are working in/studying in similarly technical fields, have you found jargon creeping into your everyday speech? If so, do you struggle to communicate with those outside your field?

Medical knowledge during med school

So… I’m still studying for USMLE Step 2. I’ve been slowly but surely making my way through my admittedly over-ambitious stack of review books and practice questions and, as I’ve been doing so, I’m realizing more and more that I’ve forgotten an enormous amount of information since I took Step 1 a year and a half ago. It would have been bad enough if I had gone straight through to 4th year, but taking a research year means that my brain has become quite the rust bucket in these past few months. I hope that I’ll be able to brush off some of these cobwebs in time to not fail.

Meanwhile, my 4th year friends seems to be in much the same state as myself. Many of them have already completed their important rotations are now cruising along toward graduation. They say that 4th year is like having a vacation for half a year. I certainly hope that that will be true for me next year. Is it too early for me to have senioritis?

The White Coat hierarchy

When I jokingly posted about the White Coat effect several weeks ago, I got a number of comments from other medical students about how their hospitals give out white coats (long and short) to everyone from physician assistants to nurses to dental students. So I started thinking about all of the white coat-clad people that I’ve seen wandering the halls of my own university hospital system, and there are actually quite a few. More, even, than I had the patience to include in my comic above.

White coats have long been a symbol of the medical profession, and surveys indicate that “easy recognition by patients and colleagues” is a chief reason that doctors and medical students choose to wear white coats. One thing that I don’t think I ever thought about or realized before I started medical school is that medicine is as much about putting on a show as it is about interpreting test results and handing out prescriptions. We perform mysterious physical exam maneuvers, speak using an unnecessarily complicated vocabulary, make small talk, smile, and yes, wear white coats, all (at least in part) to convince our patients (and sometimes our colleagues and superiors) of how smart or competent or compassionate or kind we are. We need to be able to make our patients trust us as much as we need to to actually be able to take care of them, and wearing white coats has traditionally been part of that equation. In fact, studies have shown that patients are more likely to trust physicians who wear white coats.

Of course, if the white coat inspires confidence, trust, and respect among patients, it’s no wonder that every health care professional under the sun (or anyone with any connection at all to health care) would want to wear one. But the white coat is as much a symbol of hierarchy as it is a symbol of competence. At most institutions, medical students like myself are required to wear short hip-length white coats, while residents and attendings wear long knee-length white coats. Some institutions have gone so far as to introduce different white coat styles/identifiers for med students, interns, residents, chief residents, attendings, and so on. As other health care professionals join the fray, the need to distinguish them from one another and from physicians at all levels of training, sometimes results in even more elaborate variations.

A friend of mine suggested that all the doctors and medical students should start wearing capes, just to see how quickly it would catch on in the rest of the hospital.

How I spend my time in the lab

The strange thing about medicine… You’d think that “prestige” would be tied to how well you care for patients, how few complications you have, or how many people would recommend your services to others. But really, like any other academic field, it’s all about the research. I have to say, until this past January, I never thought that I would be taking a year off to do research. I had always been a “straight-through” kind of girl (there’s probably a dirty joke in there somewhere), and by that I mean, I entered college right out of high school, entered med school right out of college, and didn’t take any breaks in between. Maybe it’s because everyone always calls it a “year off,” as if you’re taking a break from life so you can bum around on your ass for a year, but I always felt like I didn’t have the time. Fast forward the better part of a year, and now I’ve been lab-bound for almost 3 months. Go figure.

Whoever thought that a med student such as myself would be qualified to work in a basic science lab was probably mistaken. Of course, I could have opted for the Excel-monkey route and signed up to do clinical research, but sitting in a cubicle all day was exactly the kind of the work that I was trying to avoid by going to medical school. My “project” so far has felt like one long string of mistakes, set-backs, and dumb moments on my part. I was supposed to get around to animal studies, but so far, I’ve just been muddling my way through cell culture. But I’m learning, right? And what an expert I’ve become at the art of pipetting fluid volumes, small and large! Except that I really hope that I’ll pull it all together in time to have a thesis (and hopefully a few publications) by the end of this thing. And impress my professor somehow. Who happens to be chief of the-amazing-field-of-medicine-that-I-want-to-go-into. Who I’m pretty sure doesn’t even know my name at this point. Who I would really love to get a glowing recommendation letter from in a year’s time. I see her once a week at lab meeting, where my role is usually to say an apologetic sentence or two about how I’m still failing at doing the thing I thought I would have had done by now. She intimidates me (though really, I’ve gotten every indication that she is, in fact, actually very nice).

Anyway, back to what I talking about before. Lab work is quite a change of pace from 3rd year. A few months ago, I was regularly working 60-80 hour weeks. Now, I think 30 hours would be a generous estimate. In theory, I can waltz in whenever I want and leave whenever my work for the day is finished. And my “work for the day” usually takes no more than 3-4 hours. Apparently you can’t prod cells into growing any faster than they want to. I’m enjoying the break. Except for the part where, probably out of residual 3rd year guilt, I feel the need to stay and sit in my office after my “work” is done because, really, 1:00pm is much to early to go home. Of course, I rarely do anything more useful than mindlessly browsing the internet when I do this. But I’m there, so it should count for something, dammit!

So far, I’ve realized two things about myself. The first is that I’d rather work the long hours, as long as I’m not sitting around bored for any length of time. The second is that I never would have made it in grad school. By the way, I never realized how true PhD Comics were until now.

My USMLE study schedule

The road to a career in medicine is paved with standardized testing. There’s the SAT for college admission, the MCAT for medical school admission, a Shelf exam for each 3rd year clerkship, the 3-part USMLE, and then some arbitrary number of specialty Board exams depending on one’s specific career trajectory. As such, I’ve managed to become quite experienced in the matters of paying several-hundred-dollar registration fees, buying dozens of prep books never to be read, and procrastinating away all the study time that I had originally planned for…well… studying. I have enough experience, anyhow, to know my own habits. I’m scheduled to take the USMLE Step 2 CK in November, which means that I’m due for a freak-out session any day now. Hopefully that will motivate me enough to crack open the books that have been sitting idly on my shelf for the past 2 months.