medical student vs doctor (biggest differences)

Medical Student Vs. Doctor [Biggest Differences]

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With four years of medical school and additional years in residency, you would think that there would be many similarities between being a medical student and your actual life as a doctor. But as I’ve learned from personal experience, they are completely different. Let’s talk about the differences: medical student vs. doctor.

medical student vs doctor (differences)

These differences are the reason why some students become unhappy with the field when they get to practicing independently.

Let’s break these down.

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Pattern vs. Fact Learning

When you are a medical student, you are taught that you need to memorize the smallest details in order to do well on quizzes and tests that may seem like they’re the biggest things in your life.

Now, fast forward to the time that you are a full-time physician. There are no more multiple-choice exams. Instead, you’ll be presented not with four or five answer choices, but with a patient with a complaint, a complex situation, and multiple possible diagnoses.

medical student vs doctor (patient diagnosis)

To truly take care of these patients, you have to get better at something called pattern recognition.

This is the ability to take a patient’s history, their chief complaint, the reason that they’re coming to see you in the first place, their medications and labs, and being able to say, out of all of the possibilities, these are the most common. As you get further and further into your medical journey, this becomes easier.

medical student vs doctor (chest pain)

For example, if I was in medical school and somebody told me they were having chest pain, the first thing I would think about was a heart attack. But now, as a cardiology fellow seeing hundreds of patients who have complained of chest pain, I know that not all of them are related to the heart.

I’m looking at other things such as their labs, the way that their symptoms are described, and their EKGs, to tell you if this is likely going to be cardiac or not.

This definitely comes with practice and becomes one of the most enjoyable parts of medicine.

P.S. Here are other amazing things about being a doctor: 10 Positive Aspects Of Being A Doctor

Ratio Of Documentation vs Actual Medicine

As a medical student, your daily schedule will be focused on learning more about medicine through your lectures in the morning, through labs in the afternoon, and then coming home and studying for your upcoming quizzes and tests.

medical student vs doctor (medical student studying)

As you go through this day after day, you anticipate that your future as a clinician will also be the same.

On the flip side, after being a full-time hospitalist and now a cardiology fellow, I realized that there is a lot of documentation in medicine that we don’t get exposed to when we are early trainees.

If we take, for example, my one year of working as a full-time internal medicine hospitalist, out of a 12-hour shift, pretty much three to four hours would’ve been spent in some form of documentation.

medical student vs doctor (medical documentation)

This would include documentation such as the history and physical report (H&P) if a patient is being newly admitted to the hospital, a progress note if I’m following up on a patient, a discharge summary if a patient is going home, or letters for things such as insurance or work like if a patient needs an excuse letter.

The sheer amount of documentation that can easily take a majority of your day goes unnoticed until you get further into the journey.

[Free Download] Want to have everything you need to be a top student on your medical journey? Get FREE access to our Med School Success Handbook to get 60+ tips including the best study, time management, mindset tips you need to be a top student. Download it here. 

Bread And Butter vs Zebras

As a student in medical school, I remember learning the most exotic diagnoses thinking that I possibly would see them on a daily basis. This would force me and other medical students to memorize the smallest details like collections of symptoms, random enzymes, as well as how things were inherited, in case I saw that disease on the clinical rotations.

In reality, after seven or eight years of being out of medical school, I can tell you that a majority of medicine is in some form bread and butter. While zebras and exotic diagnoses are pretty cool, I actually enjoy the bread and butter and seeing them more often than not.

medical student vs doctor (bread and butter vs zebras)

For one, it increases my level of confidence knowing that I’m able to treat these diseases because I likely may have done it for the patient before.

Secondly, it also helps with the first thing that we talked about today, which is the idea of pattern recognition. The more patients that I see with asthma, heart attack, chest pain, or arrhythmias, the better I get at managing future patients with similar presentations.

System-Based Decision And Care

As a medical student, you are focused on the medicine, diagnoses, and care that are required to make a patient better.

But as you get further into the medical journey and you have more of that responsibility lying on your shoulders, you begin to realize that even the most standard forms of care and treatment are not easily accessible to all patients.

medical student vs doctor (patient care)

There have been multiple instances where I wanted to give the best form of treatment, surveillance, or imaging, and realized that the insurance was not going to cover enough, thus making that form of treatment too expensive for that patient.

The biggest takeaway as a doctor is that the standard of care may not always be standard, and it may require a little bit of creativity and flexibility on both your part and the patient’s part in terms of what the best thing to do is with their social economic background.

Patient Care Speed vs Detailed Analysis

I fondly remember how important it was for me as a medical student to be able to tell you anything about a patient. You were encouraged to know more about that patient than anyone else on the care team. This included their history, medications, allergies, as well as old forms of treatment and imaging they may have done.

Ideally, I would be able to give the same level of attention and detail to every patient I take care of today, but with the speed of medicine and the way it is, unfortunately, that’s not the case.

medical student vs doctor (speed of patient care)

In fact, the closer you get to becoming an independent physician, the more your patient care speed will matter because there’s likely a patient after the current one that is waiting for you.

I get that there is a little bit of uneasiness. If you are more detail-oriented and you had more time, you’d be able to make a different management plan for that patient or perhaps take care of them even better.

[Free Download] Want to have everything you need to be a top student on your medical journey? Get FREE access to our Med School Success Handbook to get 60+ tips including the best study, time management, mindset tips you need to be a top student. Download it here. 

Accolades vs Entire Wellness

For me, this one is probably the biggest difference of being a medical student versus being a full-time doctor.

When you’re a medical student, you are stressed out of your mind thinking about all the things that could go wrong.

medical student vs doctor (med student stress)

You start convincing yourself that you’re not studying hard or long enough. And if you don’t, that upcoming quiz or test may not go your way, that board exam right could be a little bit better, and your opportunities for future residency and career options are going to be more limited.

This is a common stressor that I personally had as a medical student. It’s the same with many of my peers and colleagues.

Now, fast forward to being a full-time cardiology fellow. In my one year as an internal medicine hospitalist, there’s this refreshing take that your accolades don’t matter. Your patients don’t ask you where you went to medical school.

What matters more is your overall wellness.

As I crossed into my thirties, my priorities were significantly different than when I was a medical student.

medical student vs doctor (priorities)

Yes, being a great doctor and learning to become a better cardiologist is a big priority to me. So when I’m at work in the hospital, this is the number one thing that I’m focusing on.

When I come home to my daughter and my wife, my number one priority is being the best family member, the best dad, and the best husband that I possibly can be.

In addition to both medicine and family, my personal progress, fitness, and learning are all important aspects.

These aspects of your life that are super important to be a happy full-time doctor are things that are just not acknowledged enough early on in medical school because it’s all about the grades and all about the learning.

But if you’re encouraged and motivated to go through this incredible journey and still enjoy your experience like myself and thousands of other students, then this path is definitely for you.

The biggest takeaway, my friends, is that being a medical student is incredible.

Being a full-time doctor is incredible.

medical student vs doctor (happy doctor)

Yes, they are completely different, but if you go and make that transition from one to the other with the full focus of being both a great physician as well as being a happy individual, then you’ll start to make the right habits early on and ultimately be able to say, I really enjoy this career.

Whenever you’re ready, there are 4 ways I can help you:

1. The Med School Handbook:  Join thousands of other students who have taken advantage of the hundreds of FREE tips & strategies I wish I were given on the first day of medical school to crush it with less stress. 

2. The Med School BlueprintJoin the hundreds of students who have used our A-Z blueprint and playbook for EVERY phase of the medical journey so you can start to see grades like these. 

3. Med Ignite Study ProgramGet personalized help to create the perfect study system for yourself so you can see better grades ASAP on your medical journey & see results like these. 

4. Learn the one study strategy that saved my grades in medical school here (viewed by more than a million students like you). 

P.S. If you are interested to know about my life as a full-time cardiology fellow, then you can read this article: My Morning Routine As A Cardiology Fellow

As always, thank you for being part of my journey.

Hopefully, you guys enjoyed this article. And if you did, you can check out these other helpful ones:

Until the next one, my friend…

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