Aside from grades and test scores, medical students are selected based on their selfless qualities such as altruism, service-orientedness, resilience and others.
Many of my medical school classmates did remarkably selfless things before starting medical school, such as starting nonprofit organizations, advocating for social and racial equity, working on ski patrol and search-and-rescue teams, volunteering in hospitals and serving on medical missions at home or abroad. It is within all future doctors to change the world for the better.
It is a temporary tragedy, then, when medical school takes these bright selfless individuals, sits them down at a desk, and thrusts them into survival mode. Many of our empathetic instincts as humans are for the good of the collective whole. The instinct that is solely for our own survival, though, is our fight-or-flight instinct—the sympathetic response, a response with which medical students become well-acquainted.
Stress causes us to turn inward and to do what it takes to protect ourselves and survive, often resulting in feelings of isolation, competitiveness, anxiety and burnout. The first two years of medical school especially tie up our capacity to exert ourselves with tests and academic demands, so much so that many students are left wondering when we actually get to help people. That’s what doctors do, right?
At times it feels like we take a sabbatical from being good, contributing members of society until we are licensed, but this is false. We do not need to wait until we are doctors to start making our impact. Here are five ways we can do good in the world as medical students now.
1. Serve those close to you
All of the service we give as medical professionals does not have to be of grand scale or life-altering significance. Small, simple acts of service can go a long way and open doors for more opportunities to serve. Think of some small ways to benefit those close to you, such as roommates, friends, family or your institution’s faculty and staff.
When we think of “service” or “volunteering,” we often overlook the opportunities right in front of us in search of something more impressive. Something as small as listening can be an act of service; listening builds trust and can significantly impact someone’s day or even their life. Remember that service is not just something to do for your CV.
Rather, it’s something you do to make a positive impact in the world, so start small and feel the difference service can make in your life, your relationships, and the lives of those around you.
2. Be an advocate
You have a unique and powerful voice as a medical student. If there are social issues or issues in medicine that you are passionate about, educate yourself on them and advocate for what you think is right in a professional manner. Consider contacting your school to ask about opportunities to advocate.
Many institutions allow students to accompany leaders to local legislative hearings to advocate to lawmakers. Seek opportunities to get involved in national organizations and advocate for causes with which you connect. If you feel comfortable sharing your cause on social media, do so in a professional manner and always follow your school’s social media guidelines.
3. Listen to the voice inside
One day after an exam, I was at my local bike shop when an 82-year-old man started a conversation with me while waiting in line. He mentioned that his wife died two years ago, and his two best friends died in the past year, one having been hit by a car while riding his bike. He said he was scared of getting hit by a car while cycling, but worried that his health would decline if he stopped riding his bike every day.
I sensed that his concerns were more severe than he was letting on and that he was genuinely deliberating giving up. Knowing that I did not have the time to become his cycling partner, but that group bike rides were a potential solution to his dilemma, I introduced him to the local cycling club coordinator who worked at the bike shop and could help him set up notifications to join group rides. He thanked me with enthusiasm for my volunteered intervention.
Yes, time out of my day was taken unplanned, yet it helped someone in need and refilled my passion for service. Had I ignored my instinct and instead fled home to study, this man’s safety or his health would have been on my conscience. If you listen to the voice inside telling you to help someone, you will feel invigorated to become a great physician and succeed in academics.
4. Be an example of healthy living
Health care workers and medical professionals intrinsically care for others and are quick to offer advice and prescribe. Often, though, we are slow to take our own advice when it comes to health recommendations. It can be an inspiration to others when they see you making healthy life choices and appropriate changes. Learn how to eat well, begin an exercise regimen, see your physician when needed, kick unhealthy habits, use sunscreen, stay hydrated, get adequate sleep and take care of your mental health.
Your family, friends, and peers will surely notice and become inspired to make healthy changes too. Having experienced the energy and wellness resulting from prioritizing your own health, your exhortations to others will have more power and credibility.
5. Mentor others
If you have made it into medical school, you have likely been the beneficiary of a mentor in one way or another. Paying it forward by mentoring others is a great way to turn outward and serve. For example, giving time to answer someone’s questions about medical school or offering advice to an incoming first-year student can significantly impact that person’s path and offer clarity to your own as you move forward.
Reflect on the mentorship you have received and consider reaching out to your mentors to thank them for their influence on your life; they will revel in knowing that they helped you succeed.
Diligence in school is a stepping stone
Academics must come first. Diligence in school, however, is the stepping stone that allows us to serve others using the full scope of our licensure one day. I’ve heard it said that a license to practice medicine is a license to practice unlimited compassion. Indeed, physicians can do things in the interest of other human beings that no one else in the world can do.
Serving others now, though, and engaging in worthy causes as we succeed in medical school will help us stay aligned with our purpose and propel us into a career and a lifetime of serving people in the greatest profession in the world.
Our purpose in medicine is not to produce or gain something with an endpoint; it is to produce something positive in our world that has momentum and will exist beyond ourselves, and we can begin now.