new doctors

This past Wednesday was July 1, the yearly matriculation date for the profession’s newest doctors. It’s when newly graduated medical students begin to wield their M.D., when newly graduated residents become specialty fellows or practicing physicians. This year’s crop of new residents includes a few whom I mentored in past years, and they’re all going to be great doctors someday.

Which is to say that becoming a great doctor takes clinical experience. There’s no way around that fact. Great doctors have cared for thousands of patients. They’ve made a few mistakes, something nobody likes to think about — and have learned from those. That’s why some people say you shouldn’t get sick in July, because you’re liable to be cared for by an inexperienced intern.

Sounds kinda scary, doesn’t it? As a patient, you’re not looking to be somebody’s experiment. I get that. But I think it’s also important not to value a head of gray hair above all else. In fact, as a teaching physician, I often found that the typical July intern was scared to death and totally aware of all he didn’t know, which means he was comfortable asking for help. That’s good for the patient. You’ve got a concerned doctor who is going to keep asking around until the right answer arrives.

Later as trainees take on more responsibility, they don’t always sense their blind spots. And out in practice it’s all too easy to believe that you know the answer when in fact there’s a better or newer one out there. Or to have too much confidence or pride to ask for specialty advice. It’s possible to falter anytime — not just in July, and not just when you’re green behind the ears.

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