HealthFebruary 07, 2020

Four times residents need a strong support system

By: Kunal Sindhu, MD
Residency is tough, but a strong network can help. Here are four situations when you should lean on your support system.

During residency, you will learn how to apply all the knowledge you gained in medical school, while taking care of patients. It can be an enormously difficult time. Not only will you be expected to work long hours, but you will also find yourself navigating a variety of emotionally challenging clinical situations. Having support from colleagues and family is key.

Here are four situations where you’ll need to lean on your support system.

1. When you need help with hospital logistics

A lot will be unclear early on in residency. While you’ll learn how to order tests and use electronic medical records, some crucial bits of logistical knowledge may evade you. Where, for example, would you find the hospital’s laboratory if you need to analyze a patient’s blood sample? Or if you needed an imaging test completed as soon as possible, how would you go about getting it done faster? Where would you find medical supplies in the event that you needed to place a nasogastric tube?

Some of this information will become clear to you in time. To get yourself there faster and navigate critical situations, though, you should get help from your co-workers. Most hospital staff members, including nutritionists, nurses, pharmacists, phlebotomists and respiratory technicians, likely have significantly more work experience and institutional knowledge than you.

Because of this, be sure to maintain friendly relationships with all hospital staff members. Their knowledge of important hospital logistics can make your life significantly easier. There’s no faster way to start residency on the wrong foot than alienating fellow staff members.

2. When you have questions about medical management

When you were a medical student, you had several layers of direct supervision. Your orders had to be co-signed or placed by residents, and your clinical reasoning was scrutinized by residents, fellows and attending physicians. Your primary goal was to learn.

Residents still work under the supervision of fellows and attending physicians, but they have far more direct patient care responsibilities. They input orders and can strongly influence the direction of patient care, and so the consequences of their clinical decisions can be great.

During residency, you’ll frequently come across situations where the next steps for the medical management of a patient aren’t clear. In these situations, you should rely on the expertise of your supervising fellows and attending physicians. Also consider consulting with your more experienced co-residents, who may have already encountered that particular clinical scenario. At the end of the day, patient safety should always be your overriding concern.

3. When you’ve had a bad day

Residency is long and difficult. As much as we might hope to avoid them, bad days are inevitable. On those tough days, be sure to lean on your family and friends, who can support you when you need it most.

Support can take many forms. Even small gestures, like family or friends preparing you dinner, can be meaningful and help lighten your load. Just having someone to talk to can go a long way, too. As a resident, your life will be challenging. You should ask for help when you need it—even if you don’t know what kind of help you need.

If you find yourself consistently feeling down or depressed, don’t be ashamed. The rigors of residency affect each resident differently. Don’t be afraid to seek care from a mental health professional if you need to do so.

4. When you’re considering a major career decision

One of the most challenging aspects about a career in medicine is that the choices you make early on have a significant impact on your life. For example, a decision to pursue a particular specialty as a fourth-year medical student can shape the course of your career for decades to come.

Unfortunately, medical students and residents sometimes make these highly important decisions without the input of more experienced mentors. With the stakes so high, this approach can set medical students and residents up for long-term disappointment. To avoid this outcome, seek the advice of your mentors when making major career decisions, including whether to apply to fellowship, switch residencies or to accept a particular job. Since your mentors have been through this process before, they may be able to provide you with valuable advice.

Residency is as challenging as it is rewarding. A strong support system of colleagues, friends and family will help you both navigate those challenges and reap those rewards. And as you progress, you can look forward to being able to return the favor.

Kunal Sindhu, MD