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Why Bother Learning Something We’ll Lose?

Originally posted on The Differential on July 30, 2008

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During high school I took three years of Spanish. I thoroughly enjoyed it and really wanted to spend a year abroad to become fluent with the language. Unfortunately, when I got to college, I desperately wanted to finish in four years. My year abroad ended being sacrificed. In my final year, I did take Spanish 101 and 102, more for the fact I knew they would be easy A’s.

Two years removed from graduation, I’m sad to say that I feel I wasted all that time studying Spanish. I haven’t used it at all. Sure, I might remember some words and phrases here and there. I can probably still conjugate the present tense of most regular verbs. But I can’t remember the vocabulary. I turn on Spanish television and I get nothing. Well, the actors are pretty dramatic, so I suppose I can get something.

The other day I was standing in line at the Argentinean Consulate when the lady behind me started talking to me in Spanish. I looked at her, puzzled. She repeated her question. I tried to piece together what she was saying but the only thing I got was “Koreano.” I assumed she was asking if I was Korean. Well, I finally apologized and told her I couldn’t speak Spanish after which the conversation ensued in English. But I couldn’t help feeling frustrated that I couldn’t even understand a simple question after more than 3 years of Spanish classes.

Language is just one of the things that you have to use, or else you lose it. And this got me thinking about medical training. This year, as with most first year medical students across this country, I took General Anatomy. As far as I know, I won’t have any anatomy classes during second year. But Step 1 of the USMLE exam will cover General Anatomy. It worries me that I will go through an entire year without ever having an Anatomy lecture. I guess I am going to have to continually review myself whenever I find myself with that elusive “free time.”

I also thought about the practice of medicine. This year, I heard a talk by a cardiology resident. He said that while he was tempted to go into surgery, he found the clinical skills of surgeons to be lacking. Most wouldn’t be able to properly auscultate a patient. He had chosen cardiology because the cardiologists he had witnessed all impressed him with their clinical abilities.

One could debate the merits of having surgeons equally competent in wielding a stethoscope as they are with scalpels. It is probably not really important for surgeons to retain this skill. After all, they are called in to do their specific job — to cut open a patient and fix an immediate problem. If a patient requires auscultation, then his or her internist should be able to do this or refer the patient to a cardiologist.

But doesn’t it seem like a waste of time, money, and — well — medical training to just let a skill atrophy? Would time in medical school be better spent training students in the specific specialties they are interested in? Why bother teaching a student proper auscultation skills if the student is heading into Ophthalmology? I wonder, is there a better way to train our doctors of tomorrow?

In his book, Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science, Dr. Atul Gawande writes of Shouldice Hospital in Ontario, Canada. The surgeons there are experts at hernia repairs. That is all they do. Day in and day out, the doctors do nothing else but repair hernias. What may be surprising to most American medical students is the backgrounds of those who operate at this clinic. A few of them have never even completed a surgical residency. But they have trained extensively at repairing hernias. This clinic, Dr. Gawande writes, has a far higher success rate for their operations than any other place in the world. Why? Because they only do one thing, and they do it amazingly. Can this be applied to medical school to cut down on the massive amounts of information that medical students are force-fed each day?

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  • http://runtomybeat.co.uk/members/Caverta/default.aspx Susan Caverta

    Auhhh man, you ruined the surprise!

  • http://runtomybeat.co.uk/members/Caverta/default.aspx Susan Caverta

    Auhhh man, you ruined the surprise!

  • http://www.medaholic.com/ medaholic

    In one aspect, your proposal does seem to be an effective use of time and would cut out a lot of unnecessary and repetitive learning. However, medicine integrates all aspects of the body, and if I was to have a surgeon operate on me, I would hope he/she would have at least a BASIC foundation of medicine.

  • http://www.medaholic.com medaholic

    In one aspect, your proposal does seem to be an effective use of time and would cut out a lot of unnecessary and repetitive learning. However, medicine integrates all aspects of the body, and if I was to have a surgeon operate on me, I would hope he/she would have at least a BASIC foundation of medicine.

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