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Four Reasons Why It’s Okay to Make Mistakes as a Med Student or Resident (and How You Can Learn from Them)

A few weeks ago I was working with some fourth year medical students in the emergency department as they helped care for and follow patients. When it came time to disposition patients, I asked the students if they would like to call any consults or admitting services but, my request was met with some hesitation. I remember as a medical student, and even an intern, I too was nervous about calling consults for fear of being questioned or “pimped” about the patients or even receiving push back about an admission. However, as I explained to the medical students, it is okay, and sometimes even beneficial, to make mistakes while in training because these mistakes and experiences are what help us become stronger, more competent physicians.

Here are four reasons why it’s okay to make mistakes as a med student or medical resident and how to learn from them.

Ask for feedback. Asking for feedback is a crucial part of the learning experience as a medical student and resident. While many programs do have a formal system for obtaining evaluations and feedback, it’s always beneficial to ask for feedback on your own. After a difficult shift, it’s okay to pull the attending aside to ask how you could have improved. If you’re performing a difficult procedure with a senior resident, ask for ways that you could improve or do things differently, even if the procedure went well. The best way to learn how to improve your skills and knowledge is to ask others who are more experienced for how to best improve. Everyone went through the same stages of training, and it’s often encouraging to learn from them about tips and tricks for becoming an even better provider.

Be critical of yourself. It has been said that people who study medicine are lifelong learners. Everyone has something to learn! Be critical of yourself and know that while you’ve already endured years of training, you always have room to learn more- no matter what age or stage of training. Known and learn what your weaknesses are and work to improve on those whether that be through seeking constant feedback in that realm or taking a few extra minutes a day to study more on a topic that may be weaker for you. That being said, it is true that we are often are worst critics, so give yourself a break! Medicine can at times be stressful, with long hours and quick decisions taking a toll. If you do make a mistake, take a few minutes at some point to try and reflect on it and how you can improve in the future, then put it behind you and move on. Mistakes in medical school and residency and meant to help us learn and become the most competent physicians possible.

Look it up. Looking up the answers to your own questions in a great way to learn. Most of us today have UpToDate, Epocrates, and similar apps and websites at the tips of our fingers which are phenomenal, reliable resources. When you look up the answers to your own questions or review a topic/area where you made a mistake on your own, it will likely yield longer term retention of the material. The bottom line: learn from every mistake because that is the best way to try to prevent it from happening again!

Learn from everyone. In medicine, we should take the opportunity to learn from everyone. When first starting residency, we all soon discover how helpful and resourceful nurses can be! They are quick and efficient at starting IVs, administering medications, running codes, and taking vital signs- skills we can all benefit from. Likewise, we should always learn from our patients. If a patient states they are having a concerning symptom that might not be impressive to you or is worried about an adverse medication reaction, take the time to listen to them. You may learn about a less common side effect or a symptom that you had not considered before!

Overall, making mistakes is an important part of the learning process as a medical student or resident. While some would consider a mistake as a failure, as physicians and physicians-in-training, we should view all mistakes as an opportunity for us and those around us to learn and improve our skills.