What does deliberate practice look like in medicine?

The Olympics are over, but I was interested by this article on Mikaela Shiffrin–the 18-year-old who just became the youngest gold medalist in slalom. Basically unlike a lot of her cohort, who spend a lot of time and energy on entering races, she stayed at home and practice a lot, perfecting her technique. Less fun, probably, but obviously it paid off.

It reminded me a lot of Cal Newport‘s writing. I can’t remember when I discovered his blog, but I found some of his thoughts on specific study skills helpful in med school. More recently–now that he’s out of student-hood, I guess–he’s been writing a lot about the idea of mastery. Basically the idea is, to quote his book’s title, to become so good they can’t ignore you–to stop chasing a job based on what you think you’re excited about, and instead, to do the hard work at becoming excellent at what you are doing.

This resonates with me, I guess, because I took a few years off between college and med school. I wasn’t premed in college, but I did decide around graduation that it might be a good plan for me. In the interim, however, while finishing the prereqs and taking the MCATs, I took a job in a field related to my major. It was…fine. I mean, there were frustrations, but it wasn’t a bad job. And by the time I got around to leaving, I was getting better at it, and doing projects with more independence, and stuff. And so I think back, and wonder, if I’d just stayed there, how would things have turned out? A couple of my other young coworkers did, and are still there, and seem to be doing well. Maybe I should have been seeking mastery all along.

The grass is always greener, of course, and on the whole I’m glad I picked the path I did. But it did get me thinking about how to achieve mastery in medicine. What does it even mean, anyway? Being a clinician-scientist is easier to understand–it’s not really unlike being any other kind of scientist. But what if you just want to be a clinician? How do you get better at it?

I think there are two major components to being a good doctor. (Here I’m leaving out some of the other pieces, like running your office well so that patients aren’t kept waiting overly long, etc.) The first is mastery of a body of knowledge. We have some systems in place to help with this. They may not be ideal, but we have USMLEs and board exams and requirements for CMEs. The second is how you interact with patients–how you dress, your body language, how you phrase questions, how you listen, and show empathy, how you deal with a difficult patient, how you examine people. And I can tell you, from having watched a lot of physician-patient encounters, that most people need work in this area too. It gets de-emphasized, though, even if the powers that be try to test it on Step 2 CS.

So, deliberate practice. I don’t actually think a lot of what’s supposed to be practice works out that way. For one thing, when we admit a patient and write a note, we have talked about it with the attending already (usually), and so I’m writing down someone else’s plan. (Actually, frequently I’m writing my admission notes at the end of the day, and in an effort to get home at a reasonable time, I’m basically transcribing my resident’s note.) For another, a lot of the patient encounter becomes habitual, and like any other habit, we lapse into it unthinkingly, without looking for ways to improve.

So what are some ways to get to mastery in clinical medicine? I’ll be exploring that in more detail this week, but basically I think it requires 1. reflection; 2. thinking about how to handle a specific, commonly encountered situation; and 3. hypothesis testing. And, underlying them all, a commitment to improvement, something which is definitely lacking in many people.


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