Highlights (and a few Lowlights) of the Preclinical Years

For those of you who haven’t yet begun browsing the ‘Future Students’ or ‘More About: The Faculty of Medicine’ tabs on every University’s website and physical prospectus, here’s a very brief aside on the structure of medical school to give you a clearer idea of what it is we’re talking about before we get into the article. If you’re already a seasoned expert, feel free to skip down a couple of paragraphs!

Aiming to speak broadly about Australian Universities, the most typical breakdown of medicine as a course is two years of preclinical learning for undergraduates (one for postgraduates) and three to four years of clinical schooling and/ or research terms. The preclinical years are aimed at instilling a foundational level of theoretical knowledge. That is, anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, microbiology, pathology for each system and the basics of things like medical law, ethics and epidemiology. The University usually sprinkles in a placement day here and there, just to keep us on our toes, but essentially all of preclinical is spent in lecture halls, tutorial rooms, labs and looking for the cheap snacks on campus. The clinical years provide the ‘real life’ experience of medicine if you will, and give us the opportunity to hang out in the hospital pretty much all the time (save for a few tutorials and weekly lectures). It’s during the clinical years that people seem to put all the little bits of knowledge together, get a grip on the practical skills, and generally learn how to doctor. 

Let’s face it, the preclinical years of medical school- no matter where you go- rarely live up to the standard of the clinical years. To me, it makes total sense, it’s not until you hit the hospitals and/ or clinics full-time that you feel as though you’re a part of what you actually signed yourself up for. Even so, although I can’t say I miss it, preclinical definitely wasn’t all bad, if bad at all! So, here we are again to reflect upon the highs and the lows, the pros and the cons, the hits and the misses- and hopefully give you a taster of what you have to look forward to. 

Let’s start off with a couple of lows so we can end on a high! The not-so-good parts about my personal preclinical experience generally fit under the broad category of a sort of ‘small fish in a big pond’ syndrome. What do I mean by this? In essence, medical school is a different ball game to high school and, at least in the beginning, it can take a bit of getting used to. From what I’ve seen, heard and experienced a lot of us finished up our high school years having gotten into a good rhythm, we had an idea of how many hours of study was enough and the little techniques that worked for us. Then, suddenly, the carpet is pulled from under our feet and for a while there all the study tips that we honed so well didn’t seem to work anymore and we started receiving exam scores that were sorely disappointing. This is exacerbated by the fact that medical school tends to attract people who are very strong academically, and there is always someone who seems to be “way smarter and way more on top of it than me”. This same principal applies to everything in University really, the pool of people becomes larger, the competition more heated, and hence your exposure to rejection and disappointment is increased tenfold. Aside from this, the only distinctly unpleasant incident that I recall from my preclinical years was a situation in which a patient refused to have me in the room during their consultation. Truly, this was a no-big-deal incident and it has happened to me a few times since. In hindsight, patients do ultimately have their right to choose not to see us medical students. Plus, there will be many, many more who will kindly let you speak to them/ elicit their clinical signs/ take their blood the list goes on!  

In saying this, the most memorable moments of my first two years of medical school are, of course, all the best ones! Academically speaking, it was starting anatomy tutorials that captured my interest. Using the prosection specimens to visualize all the intricate puzzle pieces that constitute the human body and, ultimately, dissecting cadavers for myself was an experience that I had been looking forward to since the first day. It certainly didn’t disappoint! Then, there were the glimpses into moments of ‘real-doctoring’ on our first few clinical placements. These days at major tertiary hospitals (and the smaller rural ones), GP clinics or rehabilitation facilities were admittedly few and far between during my first two years, but certainly made for the most standout moments and always left me buzzing with excitement (as most days at the hospital still do now). Alongside this, there were the smaller victories. Simple things like being satisfied with how I performed on an OSCE (our practical exams which are notoriously more difficult to pass than our written exams), receiving credit for good work, or having a patient thank you for spending time with them that made for a few particularly joyous memories amongst the mediocrity of sitting in class after class. Then there were the co-curricular surgical workshops, and teddy bear hospitals and sock puppet-making with primary school children and a whirlwind of social events… need I even mention the friendships?

Medical school is a process, and though I find myself putting great emphasis on how incredible the clinical years have treated me (so far that is), the building-block years are equally as important. No matter how average or bland some days can be (there’s a limit as to how much you can enjoy a lecture, I know) set your sights on the end goal, and know that you only carry your greatest hits with you anyway.

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