25 March 2008

Matching and Specialties

This is likely to be a multi-part posting but I thought that I needed to start to address this topic at some point. Speciality choice can be quite difficult for many medical students because some schools never quite spend much time on how to choose a speciality. This choice can be a source of life-long misery or it can become like a marriage with deep and passionate love in the early years only to be replaced with a wonderful familiarity that is both surprising and satisfying at the same time.

The wrong way to choose a speciality is based on what you will believe will be potential income. While it's generally true that surgical specialties are better paying than primary care specialities, this is not always the case especially if you find that you just don't enjoy surgery and surgical procedures after a while. Anesthesia has become very popular in the sense that people feel that this speciality pays well and had less hours than surgery but a description of Anesthesia as "hours of boredom punctuated with seconds of sheer terror" can be pretty accurate at times. Many people find that this aspect of anesthesia far outweighs any monetary rewards.

Another wrong way to choose a specialty is by how wonderful your medical school experience was in that particular rotation. While you may have loved your residents and interns, you may have not loved the patients that you were treating. This can make for a miserable residency experience and an even more miserable practice experience.

As you rotate through your required third-year clerkships, you may want to pay close attention to the types of patient that each speciality treats. Do you enjoy a long-term relationship with your patient and handling of chronic problems? If this is the case, then family medicine and internal medicine may be of interest to you. Do you enjoy treating only female patients? This brings to mind OB-Gyn but you may find yourself drawn to internal medicine with a track in women's health.

Do you enjoy procedures? You may want to investigate the procedure-heavy specialties such as anesthesia, radiology, orthopedic surgery, ophthalmology and invasive cardiology. You might also place any of the surgical specialties in this category. Finally, do you enjoy the outpatient treatment of patients? This might lead you to emergency medicine as EM spend most of their practice time dealing with outpatient issues with a bit of trauma thrown in. Dermatology is also a specialty that has far more outpatient care than inpatient care. Psychiatry can also go into that category.

Pathology tends to appeal to individuals who love to study tissues and medical problems. Pathologists do not treat inpatients and pathologists perform few procedures other than those pathologists who subspecialize in tissue banking and transfusion medicine. If study and evaluation of tissues and medical problems are appealing to you, look into pathology.

Another way NOT to choose a speciality is by what your classmates have to say about a particular specialty. Don't be drawn into the "the smartest people in medical school go into derm so derm is the best specialty". This might not be the case for you if you don't enjoy the scope of practice of the dermatologist. While dermatology is a competitive specialty, you may not enjoy much about this speciality other than the look on your classmates faces when you announce that you want to pursue Derm.

The telly shows such as "House", "ER" and "Scrubs" have also tended to glamorize certain specialties. Do keep in mind that telly watching is for entertainment purposes. There is little reality to any of these shows no matter how compelling the characters and patient situations. These shows are written by people who are generally not in medicine with input for practitioners. These shows are written with entertainment factor built into them. Most of actual medical practice is not entertaining.

As you study through medical school years one and two, you are creating the foundation upon which you will enter your third year. It is during that third year that you will be exposed to different specialties and their patients. It's good to keep an open mind during third year. Do not feel pressured to decide upon anything if you don't have an idea of what type of specialty might be of interest.

I can tell you from experience, that I generally liked every rotation that I encountered during third year. Basically, I enjoy the practice of medicine and patient interaction. I saw plenty of very interesting pathology and patients on OB-Gyn but I didn't particularly find this specialty appealing other than how I could learn to differentiate pelvic problems from abdominal problems in the course of seeing patients.

I loved my Psychiatry rotation and found the expertise of my preceptor far greater than any clinician that I have dealt with to date. I developed a very strong appreciation and high degree of respect for that multitude of psychiatrists out there that just do a good job taking care of their patients. While psychiatry was not for me, it was an awesome rotation that brought a depth of understanding as to how many medical and surgical problems might present with psychiatric symptoms.

As you go through first and second year, take the time to join one of two specialty exploration/interest groups at your medical school. By joining these groups, you ca expose yourself to residents and attendings that can assist with your exploration of their specialty. It is participation in these types of specialty interest groups that can allow you to keep your focus when you feel that you just can't look at another histology slide or review another article for biochemistry.

Also keep in mind that certain specialties do require a high level of academic achievement in medical school. I have often spoken to medical students who have struggled with a course or two in medical school who feel like doors have closed for them because they won't be competitive for a dermatology residency. My first inclination when I speak to theses folks is to find out if they actually understand the scope and practice of dermatology. If they do have this understanding, are there other less-competitive specialties that will satisfy many of their need? In the vast majority of cases, the answer is yes.

Finally, as a close to this little essay which is like a part one of this issue, if you know that you are not particularly competitive for a speciality that you feel you can't live without, spend some quality time with the program director/department chairman of that specialty at your school. Try to figure out if you have some options that can increase your competitiveness for said specialty such as research. There might even be a possibility of finding a program or two in that specialty that might be in a less desirable location and therefor less competitive.

Don't listen to anyone except yourself when it comes to your needs in terms of the practice of medicine. In the end, it doesn't matter what you classmates say about the specialty that interests you. It's how you feel about what you are interested in practicing and your suitability for said specialty. It's also about your attentiveness to your academics/boards too.

If you had a slow first year, try to have a strong second year. If you had a weak second year, then try to have a very strong third year. In short, you can decide at any point, that you are going to upgrade your work ethic and performance.

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