You may have seen your doctor or specialist recently and been asked if a medical student could observe the appointment. The truth is that the path to becoming a full-fledged, licensed, and practicing doctor is a long one. Including undergraduate school, it can sometimes take 11 to 15 years. If you are comfortable allowing medical students to participate in your care, you help train the doctors of the future. After all, your doctor used to be a student, too.

What Is a Medical Student?

A medical student working with a doctor is someone in his or her third or fourth (final) year in medical school. These students have already gotten an undergraduate degree and have gone through the first two years of medical school. Now they are close to receiving their medical degree.

In their first two years of medical school, students learn about pathology, anatomy, and other medical topics. They also learn about issues such as interviewing a patient. In their third year, they finally get to start rotations and gain clinical experience. They work with nurses, attending physicians, and resident physicians, among others.

Reasons to See a Medical Student

First, it is important to emphasize that you have every right to decide that you would rather not have a medical student be involved in your care. Perhaps you love your doctor and feel awkward or uncomfortable discussing your issues in front of anyone else. Maybe the medical student is of a gender you feel discomfort around. You do not need a reason to say "no."

What usually happens is that you show up to an appointment and a nurse or doctor will ask if it is okay if a medical student accompanies them. You can bring up questions to find out more, and you can request that the medical student leaves at any time.

All that said, the reasons to allow medical students to be involved in your care boil down to the fact that they need as much education as possible. They can learn more about whatever your condition is and how to relate to patients. You have the chance to influence how future doctors learn.

What Does a Medical Student Do?

The third year of medical school can be a bewildering adjustment for many medical students. They are transitioning from the predictability of classrooms into the real world of patients, difficult diagnoses, drug interactions, and much more. Every four to eight weeks, they move to a new area, such as internal medicine, neurology, or obstetrics. Much of what they do is observation. They observe a doctor's "bedside" manner, for example — How do doctors develop a rapport with patients? What behaviors from doctors make patients clam up? Doctors sometimes ask medical students questions during patient appointments, and medical students are expected to know the answers. Reading is a big part of the curriculum, and the in-person experience helps students learn about diagnosing and treatment.

A fourth-year medical student has the chance to do elective rotations to begin gaining specialized knowledge in a field such as, say, geriatrics. Doing so helps prepare students for their internships and residencies through which they'll get three to seven years of hands-on experience.

How Is a Medical Student Certified?

The medical students you see are not certified, per se. They are not even doctors yet. They do have at least two years of medical classroom experience and education on the most current trends in health care. They should be well-versed in the latest technology. They graduate in their fourth years and become medical doctors.

After graduation, they spend at least three years in internship and residency. Then they must become licensed doctors in their state if they want to practice. They can gain board certifications in various specialties. The American Board of Physician Specialties is one organization offering certification.

Referral and Research

Many times, you will not know until you show up at an appointment whether a medical student will be there. However, if your appointment is at a teaching hospital or a hospital affiliated with a school, there is a good chance that a medical student could be involved.

First Meeting With a Medical Student

Depending on how often you will see a particular doctor in the following weeks, your first meeting with a medical student might be your only one. In any case, you have the freedom to act in the way you feel most comfortable. Many people just interact with their doctors as usual and let the medical student observe. Sometimes, medical students may ask you questions. They should already be familiar with your case; you or the doctor should not have to explain much, if any, background.

While it is fine to ask a medical student questions to help you get comfortable with the presence of this new person, it is best to keep the queries as relevant to your case as possible. So, you might not want to ask, "Has medical school been hard?" Instead, you could ask something such as:

  • How far into this rotation are you?
  • Is there anything about my case that is unclear?
  • How many patients like me have you seen?
  • What should I do or work on before my next appointment?
  • I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around [condition, treatment, or diagnosis]. Can you try to explain it in simple language?

Of course, you do not need to ask the medical student anything at all. Do what feels most comfortable. Your primary communication, or only communication, is with the doctor.

For help finding a doctor, try searching Caredash's database.