A day in the life... pre-clinical medicine

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Pre-clinical medicine varies across all medical schools: please enjoy Applican Tutor, Alex Clark's experience of their first and second year at the University of Edinburgh!

Preclinical medical students straddle a strange, fine line between “university” and “medical school”. My past two years of study have involved a mix of widely varied experiences: from the first-year tutorial on washing my hands; to the sudden, unwelcome realisation that I was an actual adult expected to cook every day;to the time spent in the anatomy lab; the nights out with friends; the repeated (failed) attempts at taking blood from a long-suffering peer; and the daily 9am lectures of second year!

Mornings were always an early start. Last year my lectures always began at 9am, which may feel normal to you but is outrageous to many of my friends now! Most of my days I would be in central, which at my university houses most of the lecture theatres, tutorial rooms, and the anatomy lab. It’s very different from a hospital. I’ve enjoyed that aspect - it means I’ve spent time in the beating heart of the university, surrounded by people from all types of courses. 

So once I have rushed into my lecture, I settle in for fifty minutes of a clinician (if we’re learning about the liver, our lecturer may have spent her entire career treating people with liver disease) or professor (alternatively, she may have discovered a new way to treat cirrhosis) going through the basics of some aspect of anatomy, health, disease, or treatment. I type as I watch lectures, but beside me a student might be taking beautiful, handwritten notes. Though I try to keep up, something about this particular lecture, some aspect of the functioning of a liver lobule, might not make sense to me.

On any day I would have between zero lectures and five, with a “normal” day probably falling between two or three. They wouldn’t all be scientific - I’ve had modules on ethics, social issues (what is the impact of poverty on patients? How does healthcare differ for LGBT people?) and statistics. They all come together to allow us to understand health from a molecular level to a social one. 

Let’s say that this particular day is a Tuesday, and instead of a second lecture I have to get to PBL. 

Problem based learning is a staple of most medical schools, to different extents. I had two sessions a week. We’d look at one case on a Tuesday, decide what questions we needed to research, then come back on the Friday to discuss what we found. This week, the case might involve a patient who presents looking yellow.  

“He’s jaundiced”, the student beside me might say. I definitely heard that word in the lecture we had the day before, but I’m struggling to get my head around how the whole thing works.

So I ask.

Suddenly, I can have ten medical students helping me to come to grips with the concepts from that morning. I feel a veil slowly lifting. 

As I leave PBL ninety minutes later, I feel a lot more confident about tackling liver physiology. It’s 11:30, and my next class isn’t for a few hours. I take the time to eat and sit in the sun for twenty minutes, chatting to a friend. She could be a biology student I met in a freshers mixer. We’d talk about anything other than our courses.

At that point I might head to the library to go over the morning’s lecture and write up my notes. Having discussed it, I feel like I’m in a much better place. I make my notes understandable for when I will need them to study for exams, then stare at my screen. I could start on PBL research, but I have until Friday for that! Instead, I flick through my workbook for anatomy, looking at the questions I will have to answer.

Just before 2pm I head to the anatomy lab. This is the only time I get to put on a white coat! Anatomy sessions in my first years happened maybe once a week, or slightly less often, depending on what we were studying. Like PBL, the anatomy is relevant to our lectures, so I spend some time holding a liver. I pass it between my hands, feeling the weight and contours. Then, I move to another station and see a whole abdomen, feeling along the veins to see how they connect. Anatomy practicals are a fantastic way to learn, and we are all so grateful to the people who donate their bodies for our education.

At 3:30, my classes are done for that day. I head back to my flat to shower and write up my notes. As I cook dinner, I chat to my flatmate. Maybe she’s off to the gym. I consider going with her, getting fit, being active… 

I go to a pub quiz instead. 

My time in preclinical years have been two of the happiest - and busiest - of my life. While some medical schools have their students on the wards from the first week, I chose to study at a university that gave me a gentle introduction to patient care. I built up the knowledge I needed to move slowly into clinical scenarios. That won’t suit everyone, and there’s no denying that five years spent with hospital time from the get-go would leave you well prepared for life as a doctor. It’s all down to personal preference. 

If you have any questions about preclinical medicine, feel free to get in touch with us at Applican and we will be happy to answer.