By Dr. Michael M. Warren

Medical students are a vital part of your health care, because without medical students, there would be no doctors. We’ve all got to start some place, right? To put it another way, just as the kids in boot camp become seasoned soldiers, medical students are the future doctors of the world.

“That’s fine doc,” you say, “but I don’t want them practicing on me or my family. I want a ‘real doctor.’”

Well, let me assure you, I don’t want them practicing on you or your family either! Not until medical students have completed their entire program, have received their M.D. degrees and have become “real doctors” are they allowed to “practice” on anyone!

Medical students learn from and contribute greatly to a medical institution. Medical students are supervised closely, and though they are allowed to take medical histories, examine patients, and perform various menial tasks, medical students are not allowed to treat patients or perform surgery.

After graduation from medical school, the former students can become fully licensed physicians, certified by the state. They enter residency programs which are designed to train them in their chosen specialties pediatrics, surgery, psychiatry, and so forth. Residency programs take from three to seven years to complete depending on the specialty, and yes, residents are allowed to “practice” on you!

But don’t get nervous! Residents are closely supervised both by their faculty advisers and by a chief resident (a resident in his or her final year of the program). And even then, residents perform duties only according to the level of training they have received. They might assist in surgery (but not “go it alone”); they might contribute to a diagnosis; or they could aid with the postoperative care of a patient.

Some patients in my practice insist that they do not want to be seen by a resident. This is a major problem for me for a number of reasons. First, I depend on residents. They provide a great service, and their enthusiasm is often a benefit to the patient as well as to me. They keep me on my toes by asking difficult questions and this forces me to keep up to date (who wants to be outsmarted by the kids, anyway?). Second, I would not allow a resident to see a patient, if I was not perfectly confident in the resident’s ability; and finally, I was a resident once, and I know it’s impossible for a resident even to begin to become a seasoned doctor without the appropriate access to patients.

So if my patients insist on not being seen by a resident, I explain their role and their importance to the medical profession. Understanding the role of medical students and residents can make you more receptive to being seen by them, thus ensuring top-notch care more quickly and efficiently than if you always insist on seeing the “top guy.” Besides, the “top guy” is never far away and always committed to closely watching everything the resident does.

Dr. Michael M. Warren is Ashbel Smith professor of surgery at University of Texas Medical Branch Division of Urology. Write him at michael.warren@galvnews.com.