You’ve made it a long way — through the stress of the medical school application process, the hours upon hours of studying, and the pressure of exams, you’re now in the home stretch and the reality of becoming a doctor is setting in. You’re facing one of your biggest and most rewarding challenges yet: clinical rotations.
During clinical rotations, you get to experience life as a doctor firsthand, trying out areas of specialty that interest you, and perhaps some areas that don’t. You’ve arrived! But the journey’s not over yet.
Clinical rotations are the culmination of a medical student’s diligence and perseverance, but they are also uniquely stressful. Like every other challenge you’ve overcome, you can handle this. But you could probably use some pointers to help you navigate clinical rotations.
We reached out to doctors who made it through and lived to tell about it. Read on for insights on how they managed to not only survive, but also thrive during clinical rotations.
11 Insider secrets to thriving during clinical rotations
1. Commit to the rotation, regardless of specialty
It is common for medical students to start a clinical rotation knowing that is not the area of specialty they will pursue long-term. Don’t let this stop you from committing to the work and learning as much as you can.
That commitment is the key to success in clinical rotations, according to Dr. Bernard Leo Remakus. For more 35 years, he has practiced internal medicine in Northeastern Pennsylvania and has also authored several works of fiction and nonfiction, many of which explore medical themes.
"The secret to thriving in a clinical rotation in med school is to completely immerse yourself in the rotation as though you planned to specialize in the rotation’s discipline."
“The secret to thriving in a clinical rotation in med school is to completely immerse yourself in the rotation as though you planned to specialize in the rotation’s discipline,” Dr. Remakus says. If nothing else, you’ll gain cross-functional knowledge that applies to your daily practice, or even valuable context for handling a variety of emergencies.
2. Keep an open mind
Even if you feel like you know which area of specialty you will pursue, your clinical rotation may open your eyes to an aspect of another discipline that excites you. This experience offers a great opportunity to evaluate potential fields of study and specialization for your career, according to Dr. Richard Beddingfield, anesthesiologist and author.
“Don’t blow off your family practice rotation just because you’re convinced you are going to be a neurosurgeon,” Dr. Beddingfield advises. “Not only will you leave a bad impression with every attending physician and resident on your rotation, but you will also miss out on many valuable learning opportunities that could help you become a better physician. And who knows? Maybe you’ll discover family practice is your true calling!”
3. Think of your patients as teachers
Once you get in sync with the rhythm of life as a doctor, your time with individual patients can be limited. Take this opportunity to learn from them in as many ways as possible, suggests Dr. Lisa Doggett, a family physician and the medical director for HGS AxisPoint Health. She suggests using clinical rotations to get to know patients.
“Rarely again in your career will you have as much time to spend with individual patients. Getting to know them can be mutually beneficial,” Dr. Doggett says. “You might even ask them what qualities they value in a doctor. Patients have more to teach you than anyone else.”
4. Remember to be a student
Dr. Doggett also stresses the importance of embracing the role of the student during clinical rotations. “Your responsibilities as a medical student are relatively minor compared to a resident or an attending physician,” she explains. “Your main job is to learn as much as you can.”
“Your main job is to learn as much as you can.”
It’s true – clinical rotations can be stressful. But their main objective is to help you learn. Focus on honing your skills and gaining knowledge, rather than professional networking or competing with other medical students.
5. Always be prepared
Even though clinical rotations happen outside of the classroom, the tests continue. The only difference is these tests typically come in the form of hands-on work that impacts real patients. You need to be ready for what comes your way.
It all boils down to preparation, according to Dr. Barbara Bergin, an orthopaedic surgeon. “Be prepared,” Dr. Bergin stresses. “Whether it's having your lab work or x-rays readily available, or studying up on a case, just be prepared.”
6. Be on time
This may seem obvious, but it’s worth emphasizing. Remember that your professionalism and general competency in the field is being evaluated. It seems small, but having good habits like being punctual can make a big difference in how you are perceived.
“Always be on time, especially for rounds.”
“Always be on time, especially for rounds,” Dr. Bergin warns. “Your resident or attending might not say anything to you for being late, but there will be this underlying doubt regarding your interest and availability.”
7. Develop professional habits and stick to them
The intensity of academia for medical students typically involves years devoted to lecture halls, essays, and exams, all of which limit the amount of time they can spend developing professional habits necessary for the clinical setting.
“The start of clinical rotations often marks the first time young medical students have to show up on time for the job, dressed and groomed in a professional manner,” Dr. Beddingfield explains. “This can take some getting used to, but it’s best to adjust to this quickly.”
Even in your third year of medical school, falling short on basic expectations – such as grooming, using appropriate language, handling criticism, and exercising teamwork – can create a reputation that can be hard to shake.
8. Don’t procrastinate
You may have made it through the most academically intensive part of medical school, but your time in clinical rotations will still involve tests of knowledge. Dr. Beddingfield explains that most clinical rotations are concluded with an exam which can contribute significantly to your final evaluation.
“It’s not easy balancing clinical duties, learning the day-to-day skills required for each rotation, and preparing for exams, Dr. Beddingfield says. Learning to juggle these many tasks early on will be extremely beneficial. “Don’t procrastinate and wait until the end of a rotation to start learning material for the exam,” he adds. “Use downtime at the hospital or clinic to study whenever possible.”
"Use downtime at the hospital or clinic to study whenever possible."
9. Partner with your patients
Even though medical students are well aware of the stressful nature of life as a physician, clinical rotations can still end up being a rude awakening. But, there are ways to help manage that stress.
Dr. Bergin suggests starting by focusing on your patients. Developing relationships with them can help you overcome some of the other stress you are dealing with.
“A smile or a positive word from your patient on rounds can go a long way,” Dr. Bergin explains. “And you'll be honing your bedside manner to boot!”
10. Make time for personal well-being
As a doctor, you will be handing out advice left and right about personal health and well-being, but you may struggle taking your own advice. Dr. Doggett insists this piece is critical to thriving during clinical rotations.
“Make time to exercise, sleep when you can, and eat three meals a day,” she suggests. “You have to prioritize self-care, or it won’t happen.” She says she started her healthy habits in medical school and has continued them throughout her entire career.
"You have to prioritize self-care, or it won’t happen."
She recommends learning to meditate and taking time away from medicine overall on your days off. “Go to a movie, go on a hike, or visit with friends who are not in medical school,” she recommends. “That time off can be rejuvenating and help you make of the most of your time during rotations.”
11. Remember that this too shall pass
Like any other challenge you’ve overcome, the feelings were temporary. Fortunately, clinical rotations don’t last forever. You spend a few months in a certain discipline and get to move on. When you get caught up in the stress of the situation, just remember why you’re doing it.
“Realize that rotations won’t last forever. If you don’t like one, the next one will usually be better,” Dr. Doggett says. “I remember long nights at the hospital when I felt like the night would never end, but I tried to it remind myself that it would, and that a better future awaited me.”
Keep calm and complete your clinical rotations
Clinical rotations can feel like an uphill battle, but many doctors before you have managed to make it through. There is no reason you can’t, too. By prioritizing your patients, focusing on learning, and taking care of yourself along the way, you won’t just survive your clinical rotations – you’ll thrive!
Now that you have a little insight into the reality of clinical rotations, hear what the doctors have to say about the actual career itself. Get the inside scoop in our article, “Doctors Reveal 12 Things No One Tells You About Pursuing a Career in Medicine.”
Find out if medical school is right for you.Learn More