Keeping up Is Hard. Slowing down Is Harder

Illustration by Jennifer Bogartz

We come to medical school from many backgrounds, educational paths, and possible previous careers, but very soon after our education begins anew, we can all agree: medical school is HARD. It’s like nothing else. The depth of the material and the speed at which we are expected to learn it is unfathomable at first.

But then a few weeks go by, then a few more, your first exam passes. Soon, you find yourself watching lectures from home at ever increasing speeds: 1.4x, 1.7x, 2.0x! “This is fantastic,” you say. Now you can learn twice as many things in the same amount of time. And indeed, this is how many students are able to keep pace with the rigorous pace of medical education while still finding time for extracurricular involvement, research, and hopefully some physical activity.

Quickly, August becomes December and if you’re fortunate enough, you’ll find yourself home with family for a week or so. But you can’t speed them up. You can’t turn a 30-minute conversation with Grandma into a 15-minute conversation by asking her to talk faster, and you certainly can’t speed through family dinner in record time. These new skills you have been learning in medical school suddenly aren’t applying to the world you know back home. Then you realize, this is the real world.

The three days of your life (or was it four days? Five maybe?) of back-to-back lectures and e-modules on double speed that occurred just a week ago are not reproducible in the world outside your secluded study cave and sound-cancelling headphones. It’s easy to become frustrated when faced with this reality. “Why can’t Grandma just talk faster?! I already know the end of her question before she can finish asking it!” “Wow, if we could watch this family movie on 2.0x speed we could watch the sequel tonight too!”

You return from holiday break and gladly descend back into your world of efficiency, no longer bothered by family members who talk like tortoises. “This is my place,” you think, surrounded by like-minded peers, “these are my people.” The speed of your life doubles once again to accommodate time to learn everything you’re expected to know before you graduate (or so you think).

This entire notion is turned on its head as soon as you begin your clinical experiences. Just as you couldn’t speed through your conversation with Grandma, you certainly can’t ask your patients to talk faster when they tell you about what brought them in today. You are trained to let your patients speak — to ask open-ended questions and to listen intently to what your patients have to say.

Just a few months ago, you were being not-so-subtly coaxed by the speed of the curriculum to be as efficient as possible. You adapted to the new normal of 2.0x speed. And now, it’s just the opposite. You mustn’t interrupt the long, slow pauses of your elderly patient who seems upset. Speeding up a lecture will allow you to learn more information in less time. But speeding up a patient? That’s a surefire way to learn less information, and potentially put your patient’s health at risk.

These two methods of learning are in direct opposition to each other, but each is equally important. These skills must be balanced, and transitioned between seamlessly from one hour to another. This takes practice, and a constant awareness of your own state of mind. From one moment to the next, we must transform from hyper-efficient, learning robot to empathetic, pensive, and caring physician-in-training.

It’s important to be conscious of what learning mode we’re in as we go about our days. We can upset our friends and family, fail to build important bonds with our patients, and risk missing the subtler nuances of medical training if we try to learn everything as rapidly as possible. We can learn so much from our 2.0x speed lectures, but our patients can teach us even more if we just take the time to slow down.

Anthony (Tony) Fabiano is a third-year medical student at The Ohio State University College of Medicine. His professional interests include ultrasound, community health leadership, and quality improvement. In his free time, he enjoys exercising, taking coffee too seriously, and spending time with his rescue dog, wife, and friends.

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