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Knowing Our Limitations is Essential to Becoming a Good Physician

Posted Feb 02 2012 4:43pm

The whole reason that I enrolled in medical school is to help others.

One recurring theme this week that I have seriously learned is that I am only one person, who can only do so much. I have extensive, yet limited abilities in my medical training so far, and I cannot give everyone the answers to all their questions. And you know what? I’m completely okay with that. I am only a student and I cannot expect perfection 100% of the time, because the fact of the matter is, I am still learning, I still have my own questions, and I’m not a doctor…yet!

I think a really good example of this lesson (although there were many more this week), is one of my work study jobs. I really like to teach (Docere), so I am a tutor for a basic science class in the Naturopathic Medicine program. This week was particularly difficult for me as a tutor because the students that I have been tutoring did not do as well on their midterm as they would have liked.

Did I fail as a tutor?
Was I not portraying the information in an understandable way?
Did I not go over enough sample questions?
Were my study guides not detailed enough?
Was I not helping the students to make connections?
What could have I done more?

After meeting and talking with the professor of the course and looking at the midterm exam, it really took all of my energy to take a step back from this situation and learn that this was not my hurdle to cross. The student did not do as well on the exam not because of my efforts (or lack thereof). I took this situation personally: I invested 2-3 hours a week of my time into helping them, rereading the information myself, and trying to teach to the best of my ability. But despite all of my efforts, at the end of the day, I have to remember that I did my best (whatever that means).

I think that this whole know-your-limitations/you-won’t-be-able-to-help-everyone idea is an important lesson to extrapolate to becoming a doctor, as well. We are in the profession because we want to do out best, to help our patients, to keep them healthy, and prevent serious disease. However, we can make all the recommendations that we would like, but if that patient is not ready to make a lifestyle change for themselves, then we have to take a step back and ultimately allow the time for them to take the first step. I find it really hard to admit this idea though, in addition to creating a professional boundary with patients. After all, you do create a relationship with someone after having uncomfortable conversations, spending more than an hour with them, in addition to an endless list of suggestions for their health. My classmates, colleagues, and I have an innate “wanting-to-help” nature about ourselves, so that when something does not go as we had expected, disappointment sets in.

But from actually taking some time and thinking about the situation, disappointment should not be the main emotion, but rather contentment, that we did do everything in our power to help this person sitting in front of us. We are educated enough, through both life experiences and classroom settings to know what to do in a certain situation, when to ask for help, and/or when to pass a person on to someone that can help them. I want my students, as well as my future patients, to be successful in their endeavors, and take charge of their health. In no way would I take offense to someone who does not resonate with my personality, my viewpoints, or my teaching skills. Knowing our limitations is key, and it is not, in any sense of the word, a defeat, rather an empowerment.

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