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Why Failing Med Students Don’t Get Failing Grades

Fri, 03/01/2013 - 9:39am
Pauline Chen

Tall and dark-haired, the third-year medical student always seemed to be the first to arrive at the hospital and the last to leave, her white coat perpetually weighed down by the books and notes she jammed into the pockets. She appeared totally absorbed by her work, even exhausted at times, and said little to anyone around her.

Except when she got frustrated.

I first noticed her when I overheard her quarreling with a nurse. A few months later I heard her accuse another student of sabotaging her work. And then one morning, I saw her storm off the wards after a senior doctor corrected a presentation she had just given. “The patient never told me that!” she cried. The nurses and I stood agape as we watched her stamp her foot and walk away.

“Why don’t you just fail her?” one of the nurses asked the doctor.

“I can’t,” she sighed, explaining that the student did extremely well on all her tests and worked harder than almost anyone in her class. “The problem,” she said, “is that we have no multiple choice exams when it comes to things like clinical intuition, communication skills and bedside manner.”

Medical educators have long understood that good doctoring, like ducks, elephants and obscenity, is easy to recognize but difficult to quantify. And nowhere is the need to catalog those qualities more explicit, and charged, than in the third year of medical school, when students leave the lecture halls and begin to work with patients and other clinicians in specialty-based courses referred to as “clerkships.” In these clerkships, students are evaluated by senior doctors and ranked on their nascent doctoring skills, with the highest-ranking students going on to the most competitive training programs and jobs.

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