Why Clinical Rotations for Medical Students are Important

Two male doctors talking. MEDIjobs

The final years of medical school get students out of the classroom and into a real-world medical setting. Although this change is exciting, it’s easy to underestimate how difficult clinical rotations can be. Clinicals are fast-paced, and students are expected to maintain the same professional demeanor as the residents and licensed physicians around them.

Typically, students still must find time to study some while doing clinical. While studying during down-time in the ward you’re working at can seem smart, you may miss out on what’s happening around you. Clinicals are a critical opportunity for practicing soft and hard skills, as well as networking and asking questions about your potential career path.

Hands-On Practice

The most obvious reason for clinicals is the opportunity to practice hands-on skills. Everything from drawing blood to logging patient vitals is a skill that requires practice to do quickly and accurately.

Though the early years of medical school cover many of these skills, it’s important to be able to do them in a clinical setting while dealing with unknown variables and many distractions.

Occasionally, a clinical rotation will have you shadowing a physician and won’t allow much hands-on skills practice. Try to make the most of this as well. Remember that no task is too small for you to be bothered with. Be proactive and offer to help out wherever is needed.

Developing Soft Skills

A physician’s bedside matter can make or break their relationship with patients. Maintaining professionalism while encouraging open communication is tricky, especially when navigating a new work environment each month during rotations. 

Interactions with colleagues, including oral reports of findings, also require practice. Public speaking skills are essential, but so is the general organization and conciseness of findings during rounds. Fortunately, most rotations allow many opportunities to practice these skills.

Also, take this opportunity to learn how to interact with nurses, orderlies, and other support staff. Though they may not have a medical degree, their hands-on knowledge and experience is incredibly valuable. Learning how to build a good working relationship with them will pay off significantly through the rest of your career and may even positively impact patient outcomes.

Networking

U.S. medical residency programs require at least one letter of recommendation from a practicing U.S. physician, plus two other letters. Your clinical rotations are the best time to get one of these letters. Since doctors are very busy and you might not have time to make an impression during rotations, you’ll have to do your best to be helpful and memorable.

These connections can also help you land jobs in the future. If you’re hoping to stay in the same city that you’re doing medical school in, you could end up working in the same hospital or with the same physicians. Even if you want to move, a well-respected physician may have connections in the same field in other cities.

Deciding Your Future

Many students enter clinical rotations already knowing which specialization they plan to pursue. However, clinical rotations are an excellent time to check and make sure that you really understand what’s expected in that specialty! For example, pediatrics can seem appealing because of the kids. But the day-to-day experience of dealing with stressed-out parents can be too draining for some doctors.

You may also find that a particular subspecialty or related specialty is a better fit for you than you expected. As soon as you realize that you’re considering pursuing it as a career, use the time remaining in the clinical to ask as many career-related questions as possible. Many attending physicians will go out of their way to offer advice and information but might not bother if they think that you are pursuing another field.

Reinforcing Shelf Exam Knowledge

At the end of each rotation, medical students have to take an exam that covers the specialization they just rotated through. While the exam can theoretically be passed without the hands-on clinical experience, the content is much more memorable when paired with the clinicals. Each patient you work with will require you to draw on your knowledge of that specialization. And by routinely using that knowledge, the exam content will no longer feel so abstract.

Of course, this isn’t to say that the exam will be easy. Good study habits are imperative, even during 10-hour clinical days. However, being able to mentally match a patient case to a concept will make passing the exam a little less difficult.

Focus and Grit

Clinicals are an incredibly difficult experience, as they are essentially a full-time unpaid internship. Even finding time for self-care can be difficult, especially for students who are attending school far from home.

However, giving your best effort during clinicals can help you make the most of this opportunity. Having a successful residency and medical career hinges on hard and soft skills but can also be impacted by networking. Remember that though many medical settings are fast-paced. There can also be a sense of camaraderie among staff that keeps things from getting overwhelming. 

When all else fails, remember that each rotation only lasts a month. If you’re stuck in a truly unpleasant rotation, work hard and keep your hopes up for the next one. Although it’s important to make the most of clinical experiences, keeping your eye on the future can help you persevere. 

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