20 October, 2023
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Most medical students who’ve done a bit of time in their clinical years can probably remember a placement where they were sat in a corner hour after hour almost completely ignored by the healthcare staff around them. You remember there was a time when you thought preparing for the GAMSAT exam was the hardest thing you've ever done, but this is a different type of challenge that you may or may not have faced before.
They return home from a day being a fly on the wall to discover that
a) they’re exhausted, but also
b) they didn’t actually absorb that much information.
They think back to all the patients they saw, and a few things stick, but then the next time they go to see a similar patient on their own, they forget what to say.being a medical student and sometimes also the most logistical and safe solution to a particular medical situation. However, any medical student will tell you that they’ve learnt most on the days when they’re put in the hot seat.
Actually taking histories, performing exams, and maybe even formulating plans for patients yourself is very different to watching someone else do it. That challenge is what helps you learn.
Unfortunately, sometimes GP placements can (often for reasons outside the GP’s control) be that place where students end up doing a lot more observation than action. Whilst this isn’t always the case, and many GPs will get you involved from the get go, as someone who has experienced being a fly on the wall too many times, I’d like to share some lessons that I’ve learnt about how to get the most out of your GP placement.
The first lesson may not always be fruitful, however the experience of taking a patient consult (of course under the direct supervision of a qualified doctor), is one of the most invaluable experiences any student doctor can have. It makes you actually think, and then have to act on those thoughts in front of a real patient!
And this is why it is lesson #1.
Whilst the GP’s office can seemingly be the perfect place to do this, GPs are also often extremely overrun with patient loads. This means, letting a (presumably) very slow medical student take a consult and then leaving enough time for feedback can be extremely taxing on what is already a strenuous schedule. Many GPs may not even be aware that they are having a student join them until it happens, and many practices may also not have the logistical capacity to allow students to lead consults in this way.
But, and this is a big but,
You never know until you ask.
And sometimes, with a little future planning, your GP might be able to arrange for you to see patients in your own room whilst consulting them for their advice along the way. And if they say no, your enthusiasm to be involved and take the lead may encourage them to seek other options for your learning.
This lesson also relates to that unfortunate situation of sitting in a corner seemingly forgotten through hours of GP consults. If you have already taken lesson #1 above and it hasn’t worked out, the next best thing I can advise you to do is, ask questions!
Ask lots and lots of questions!
Not only does this show that you’re listening to the consult (obviously something you would like to be seen doing), but also it shows that you’re curious! GPs will be more keen to get you involved if they know that you’re interested, and often asking questions (they don’t have to be sophisticated or complex) is the best way to show this.
You also get a lot more out of your learning to complete your medical school experience. GPs have a lot of wisdom when it comes to clinical presentations that medical students are often perplexed by. You might watch a GP take a history, quickly examine and then formulate a plan for a patient in only 8 minutes and have no idea how they got there. The only way to learn what just happened in front of you is to ask questions!
One of the best experiences, in my opinion, that a medical student can get is spending time with rural GPs. Rural GPs do amazing things both inside a GP office and outside – they can specialise in particular areas including obstetrics and anaesthetics. Many rural emergency departments are also run by rural GPs.
If you ever have the opportunity to do a rural GP placement, do it! And nonetheless, if you ever have a GP offer for you to go with them on a medical placement outside of the GP office, whether it be nursing home visits, an ED shift or a C-section, take it!
This lesson is meant in both senses of the phrase – take study notes with you, and take notes during the GP sessions.
Now, I don’t mean take down notes on every single presentation for every single patient. However, sometimes things pop up in GP placement that you want to read more about. So many times I’ve had a bunch of review topics listed in my head after a day of GP that just all melt into one confusing memory and disappear out of my brain. Having a list of things to revise when you get home is not only a good guide for studying, but it also allows you to relate what you read to actual patient scenarios you have witnessed. I find this helps the information stick a lot more!
The ‘take study notes’ lesson I’ve learnt more specifically relates to those ‘fly-on-the-wall’ type placements, where I have found it really useful to have some reading material to glance at or refer to when I have a question that isn’t quite answered. Plus, you’ll be covered for those awkward times where there isn’t much going on and you’re feeling a bit lost.
Some GPs, like doctors in many specialties, have this amazing ability to eat NOTHING. ALL. DAY. Or at least eat lunch at about 4pm after literally not stopping for 8 hours.
For this reason, my last lesson can be very, very important to your learning experience during GP placements. Having a snack like a muesli or protein bar tucked away in your pocket can be an invaluable source of fuel when you’re still wondering why the GP hasn’t mentioned lunch yet. Getting to the end of a day at GP placement and realising you didn’t pay attention to half of it because all you could think about was that really delicious lunch sitting in your bag is less than ideal.
I hope these lessons will help gear you up for a more productive and memorable GP placement. Remember, the amount of effort you put into being engaged in any medical placement always impacts how much you get out of it.
There’s a high possibility that you may need to consider moving interstate for your GP placement or to start medical school. It’s not an easy decision to make, so check out our article Moving Interstate to Study Medicine for additional points of consideration to help you decide!