Lily Copping: Medical students are also sometimes patients—we should incorporate this into our education

The Sharp Scratch team and I recently got together with Anne Stephenson, a South London GP, to chat about being both medical students and patients in our own right. In a pretty short space of time, we covered the oft held assumption that medical students are all “healthy,” whether having an illness makes us better at empathising with patients on our placements, and the dynamics between us and our doctors in our own appointments. 

Before discussing these further, I want to acknowledge my significant privilege in the area of chronic illness, a necessary task when discussing the historically (and presently) exclusionary field of medicine. Although I do have a health condition requiring professional input, I am very able-bodied and have never had to ask for unique arrangements to be made simply to engage with my course’s content. To put it clumsily, the way in which my body moves through the world has never interfered with my sense of belonging on this degree course.

For this reason, while I can offer insight into my own personal experiences of navigating being both a medical student and a patient, I accept my scope is limited and therefore not encompassing many other medical students’ experiences.  

“The patient left the room and the staff member just looked at me and said ‘Urgh, imagine how horrible it must be to have to take so many medications just to stop yourself feeling miserable’. And I’m sitting there thinking ‘Well I had a phone call with my psychiatrist the day before. We’ve just upped all my medications, added another one, and yeah—I know how it feels’.”

Isobel Walker (Issy), one of the panellists on the podcast, shared an encounter she’d had recently where a staff member made this comment about the patient to her after the consultation. Although not intending to be malicious, they clearly made the comment without considering the potential for Issy to relate to the patient or be offended by the words; raising the complex issue of medical students being assumed to be “well.” In that moment, the idea that Issy could be anything but perfectly healthy did not cross their mind. Instead, a line was drawn between the patient and the professionals; the medicated and the unburdened; the unwell and the well.

Similarly, in my third year, a respiratory doctor was teaching my group about bronchiectasis, a condition I have, and kept referring to how unappealing the patients and their symptoms were. While bronchiectasis is pretty debilitating for many people, what made my friend and I exchange a series of cringing side-eyes was the assumption that no one in that room could possibly have a personal stake in the conversation. A “patient” was an abstract, distant, other existence. It wasn’t us.

Continuing this conversation, we listened to a clip in which a fellow medical student, Gavin, recounted his experience as a patient on a cardiology ward. His story well represented the choice medical students have when navigating their own healthcare. Gavin’s decision to be upfront about what he was studying, whether that felt like a significant choice or not, led to his medical team changing the way they spoke to him about his care. They shifted their approach to reflect an educational, peer-to-peer encounter, as opposed to a more typical patient-doctor dynamic. Gavin spoke about this experience positively as it allowed him to learn and more deeply understand his condition, and he expressed being grateful to those doctors for taking the time to teach him.

“I want to be treated like a traditional patient.”

Clearly, a “traditional patient” is a pretty loaded term, and raises questions that would require an entirely separate article to unpick, but in the flurry of reacting to Gavin’s story this is what my brain blurted out. Presented with his favoured patient-doctor dynamic, my (potentially over-dramatic) reaction was that I had completely different expectations of my caregivers.

That is, I want to be looked after. I want to walk into my appointment and breathe a sigh of relief. I want to drop the burden of symptoms, medications and prognoses at the door and rest in the knowledge that for the next 10 minutes or so, someone else is taking responsibility.

I could (and do) rant until the cows come home about the paternalistic and alienating tendencies of some doctors. When discussing consultation styles, I am an avid supporter of holistic, patient-led, non-hierarchical therapeutic decision making. However, I also have a glimpse into the exhaustion of simply being unwell. There are appointments where myself and my doctor have collaborated to form a management plan, but there are also appointments where I have stared into the distance as I’m prescribed antibiotics and told I can’t sit my exam.  

Sometimes patients just want, and need, to feel held. 

What the team articulated well in the episode is, as with all patients, different medical students will require different things from their caregivers. Some medical students want their doctors to treat them like peers, and enjoy the changed language and consultation style that comes with it. Others, like myself, often choose to avoid admitting they study medicine, and instead opt to be treated in a more ‘traditional’ style. In reality, I think we all end up fluctuating between the two.

It is not at all ground-breaking to conclude by stressing the point that medical students are sometimes also patients. But I’m going to say it anyway. The false dichotomy created between healthcare professionals and the ‘sick’ is harmful and cultivates shame around illness.  I wonder how much we could learn by deconstructing the walls we’ve built between ourselves and our patients, therefore expanding our understanding of illness and wellness. The fact that medical students are (surprise, surprise!) ‘normal’ people is something to celebrate and incorporate into our education, not something to fear. 

Lily Copping, Fourth year medical student at Bart’s and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry

Competing interests: None declared.

The Sharp Scratch Panel:

Nikki Nabavi, The BMJ, University of Manchester

Isobel Walker, University of Nottingham

Lily Copping, Bart’s and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry

Being a patient as a medical student episode guests:

Anne Stephenson, GP

Gavin Ball, University of Manchester

Listen to the episode on Spotify and Apple pods

Follow us on Twitter:

Panel: @nikkixnabavi @lilycopping @issywalker

Brought to you by: @bmj_latest, @BMJStudent

Sponsored by: @MPS_Medical