Your Health
By Michael Warren

Medical students are a vital part of your health care because, without medical students, there would be no doctors. We’ve all gotta start some place, right? 

“That’s fine, doc,” you say, “but I don’t want them practicing on me or my family. I want a ‘real’ doctor.” 

Let me assure you, I don’t want them practicing on you or your family either. Not until medical students have completed their entire program, have received their degrees and have become “real doctors” are they allowed to “practice” on anyone. 

Medical students learn from and contribute greatly to a medical institution. They’re supervised closely and are not allowed to treat patients or perform surgery. 

After graduation, they enter residency programs designed to train them in their chosen specialties — pediatrics, surgery, psychiatry and so forth. Residency programs take from three to seven years to complete and, yes, residents are allowed to “practice” on you. 

But don’t be nervous. They are closely supervised and perform duties only according to the training they have received. They may assist in surgery but not go it alone. They may contribute to a diagnosis or aid with postoperative care. 

Some patients insist they do not want to be seen by a resident. For me, this is a major problem for a number of reasons. 

First, I depend on residents. They provide a great service, and their enthusiasm is often a benefit to the patient, as well as to me. They keep me on my toes by asking difficult questions, forcing me to keep up to date (Who wants to be outsmarted by the kids, anyway?). 

Second, I would not allow a resident to see a patient if I was not perfectly confident in the resident’s ability. Finally, I was a resident once and I know it’s impossible even to begin to become a seasoned doctor without appropriate access to patients. 

So, if my patients insist on not being seen by a resident, I explain their role and their importance to the medical profession. Understanding the role of medical students and residents can make you more receptive to being seen by them, thus ensuring top-notch care more quickly and efficiently than if you always insist on seeing the top guy. Besides, the top guy is never far away and is always committed to closely watching everything the resident does. 

As always, it’s good to ask questions when your health is involved; but it’s also good to recognize quality. In this case, it’s even good to trust the system. Medical students and residents are your future doctors. Don’t be afraid of them.

 Dr. Michael M. Warren is Ashbel Smith Professor of Surgery in the division of urology at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.