The Language of Medical School

By Lauren Phillips, MD Candidate Class of 2019, UM Medical School

“…that’s when it hit me – this is why we were there. To see, from the very beginning, that patients can be experts in their own medical experience.”

I sat in the lecture hall donning my short white coat for the first time, quickly realizing that I forgot to iron it beforehand while trying to figure out the best placement for my new MCard with “Medical Student” printed across the bottom. Should I go with the lanyard method, or the retractable badge holder? Should I ask the person I just met sitting next to me? What was his name again? If I couldn’t even remember his name, how will I be able to remember all of the information I must learn over the next four years? How will I reach the finish line? What am I even doing here?

With sweaty palms and MCard placed safely back in my backpack to be dealt with later, I settled in to listen to the first presentation on something called “PFCC,” which we were told stands for Patient- and Family-Centered Care. Our presentation was led by the PFCC Program manager, Kelly Parent. We were launched into a talk that emphasized the importance of incorporating family values and beliefs into making medical decisions. Medicine at UMHS is transforming from making decisions for patients, to making decisions with patients. At its core, PFCC requires the acknowledgement that there can be more than one expert in the hospital or examination room – there’s the physician, and also the patient and their family. There were incredibly powerful video clips that reminded us the role that empathy plays in health care (one of which can be found here), and even a patient panel who shared their health care experiences with us.

Us.  First year medical students who had not even begun our basic science courses yet. We could barely pronounce the conditions these patients named, let alone understand them. We had no knowledge of the organ systems affected by their illnesses or the pathology of their diseases. There we were, in the audience, with our white coats on, our only contributions being a set of open ears and a desire to see their experience through their eyes.

And that’s when it hit me – this is why we were there. To see, from the very beginning, that patients can be experts in their own medical experience. During the first week of our medical school orientation, the University of Michigan Medical School did not want to emphasize our coursework or the intense examinations in our future. They wanted to emphasize that the mindset with which we interact with our future patients and families is just as important as the medical science behind their illnesses. This mindset is one of communication that emphasizes listening, and includes putting the personal values of a patient as the top priority in administering medical care.

Before our first week, many of us would have predicted to hear words such as competitive, intense, and challenging during this time. However, the words that were spoken most were presence, listening, engagement, empowerment, collaboration, and communication. This is the language of the medical school at this university. Because the science behind the illnesses that we learn during the journey to becoming physicians will be meaningless if we do not understand that we are just part of the puzzle. Perhaps our greatest strength will lie not just in our clinical expertise, but in our ability to partner with patients through our shared humanity as well.

This was why I was in that lecture hall, slightly wrinkled white coat and all. My classmates and I are here because we all envision future health care delivery beginning with and ending with the patient experience. From our first week of orientation, we have seen that our goals align with those of the medical school where we will be trained, and we couldn’t be more excited.

So, for now, I will ask the classmate next to me to remind me of his name. I will commit to the lanyard MCard method. I will try to remember to iron my white coat when I get home. Because we are not here to be perfect human beings. We are here to grow into professionals who can connect with and share in the experience of people who seek help. That is what we are doing here. And that is what will drive us to the finish line.

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