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Six Tips to Help You Succeed on Your Clinical Clerkships

A group of medical students in a hospital completing their clinical rotation.


During your third year of medical school, you will get the opportunity to go into the hospital and help with patient care during your clinical clerkships. For many students, this is the first time they get to work with patients, round with a medical team, assist with surgeries, and more. This experience is an exciting time – you will learn so much from your patients and colleagues. However, the current landscape regarding how we evaluate medical students is changing – most U.S. medical schools are entirely pass-fail during the first two didactic years, and some schools have decided to make the first clinical year pass-fail as well. Additionally, earlier in 2022, Step 1 was made a completely pass-fail test. Many students are realizing that the only quantitative evaluations they will have on their transcript are their clinical clerkships grades and Step 2CK. Given the increased importance of succeeding in the hospital, we wanted to put together a list of our tips to help you succeed on your clinical rotations during your clinical year. These tips are primarily focused on how to be a good member of the medical team and not on how to prepare for your shelf exams as that is covered in other blog posts.


1. Prepare Ahead of Time for Your Clinical Clerkships


One of the most common obstacles that students struggle with on day one of a clerkship is feeling lost. There are acronyms, diagnoses, medications, procedures, etc. that were briefly mentioned and studied during the didactic years, but that information may be lost or was never presented in the form of a patient case. So what can you do? Prepare! You will feel much more comfortable on day one of your rotation if you have done some preparation in advance. I recommend watching some videos or reading a chapter of a textbook prior to your first day on a rotation. Online MedEd is a great resource for videos based on clinical subspecialties. Even a little bit of preparation can go a long way, however, do not feel like you need to be an expert on day one! Recognize that you will learn throughout the clerkship, but having a good foundation is key to success.


2. Be Present During Your Clinical Rotations


This tip seems straightforward, but it is one of the most important things you can do as a student to learn medicine and be a productive member of the team. You should strive to be listening on rounds, even when it is not a patient you are following. When there is downtime, avoid going on social media as this can give off the impression that you are bored and uninterested in patient care. If you are in the workroom, read up on your patients – there is always something to learn from them. One of the best resources is UpToDate – I recommend reading the UpToDate page on your patients’ primary medical problems or medications so you have a comprehensive understanding of their case. While some of the information on UpToDate is beyond the scope of the shelf exams, you should still prioritize this information while in the hospital on your clinical clerkships– this is the information that will make a difference in your understanding of your patients. I do not recommend studying for shelf exams while you are in the hospital unless you have dedicated time away from the medical team for this activity – you will be more invested in your clinical clerkship (and impress your team) if you learn about your patients rather than just the material on the shelf exam.


3. Be Naturally and Genuinely Curious


One of the most effective ways to learn is by asking questions. By reading about your patients, you will develop a more comprehensive understanding of their pathology and case. As you learn more, you will learn more about the art of medicine, where some decisions are not evidence-based, and you should learn about how clinicians make difficult decisions when the data are equivocal or do not exist. However, asks questions if you are genuinely curious. It is pretty easy to tell when someone is asking a question for the sole purpose to ask a question and “look engaged”. It is easy to look up the mechanism of a drug. However, it is hard to know why the clinician chose one drug over another without asking. Be curious and have the desire to learn!


4. Help Your Clinical Clerkships Team as Much as You Can Without Slowing Them Down


Let’s face it, as medical students, there is not much we can actually do as we are not licensed physicians. However, there are some things you can do to help the team! This includes checking in with patients after rounds, calling families to update them, reaching out to consultants, writing notes, helping the nurses or other staff members, and more. Keep an eye out for opportunities to make your interns/residents/fellow’s lives easier – they have tough jobs, so anything you can do that will help them will be greatly appreciated! If you do not know what to do, do not be afraid to ask “what can I do to help?” – your team members will take this as a sign of initiative and appreciate the offer to assist.


5. Recognize You Will Have to Make Sacrifices


Your clinical year will be tough. During some rotations, you may be in the hospital for 60 to 80 hours a week! You need to recognize that being physically present in the hospital is required of a physician. If you want to succeed during your clinical clerkships, you will likely have to make sacrifices to be present in the hospital, while still dedicating time to studying at home. Take a look at your daily schedule and think about where you can save time. Unfortunately, you may have to trim down on the amount of time you sleep and devote to your social life. Even though patient care should be your primary focus, you will have didactic sessions, quizzes, and studying you must budget time for as well. Make sure you have a good study plan and schedule that fits within your clinical responsibilities.


6. Take Care of Yourself


This is probably the most important tip – make sure you are taking care of your physical and mental health during this year. It’s going to be very difficult to succeed in the hospital if you are not your best self. If exercising is important to you, find a way to fit this into your schedule (you may need to be creative with your busy schedule). Find friends and family who can support you during this time. Seek out mental health services if you need them. And importantly, be resilient – this year is not going to be easy, recognize that growth will come from this difficulty. 


I, along with many other tutors here at Elite Medical Prep, have tons of advice to offer you. We can also help you prepare for your shelf exams (family medicine, internal medicine, surgery, neurology, pediatrics, OB/GYN, and psychiatry) through tutoring. Schedule your free consultation today and let us know how we can help!

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