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How to Prepare for your First Clinical Rotation

How to prepare for your 1st clinical rotation.

Whether your next student clerkship is in your university hospital or an away rotation in a new city, there are obvious planning procedures that are overlooked. If this is your first clinical rotation – or U. S. clinical experience for foreign or international medical schools – these tips will get you off to a great start.

What Should I Bring on My Medical Rotations?

Put some time in and see what materials may be useful, both for patient care and studying on the wards. There are many forums that recommend different resources students should carry.  But the most reliable is often advice from a former student. 

Many preceptors will also have a Learning Objectives sheet with their personal recommendations. Do remember that, while useful for physician expectations, the physician may not be aware of more recent study materials or technology. Gather advice from several resources when possible prior to your first rotation.

Can you study on your cell phone or is that considered rude or unprofessional? How about a tablet? Does it fit in your lab coat? What written material would you like to carry around for studying or notes? What medical tools and devices are recommended per rotation (i.e.: ENT vs radiology)? Your school and other students can greatly help guide you through these questions when preparing for your clerkships. It’s important to realize that medicine is constantly changing. Always keep an eye out for the latest information.

For most sites, you will want your lab coat, writing utensils, a notepad, and assorted medical devices. A stethoscope is universally needed for physical exams. However, you may also wish to bring a penlight, Snellen eye chart, and a pocket-sized guide for quick lab reference ranges. Don’t forget to ask if there are specialty-specific items you should bring prior to your first day. These will all be necessary for proper patient care.

Medical students should also consider how they will make it through the day. Will cafeteria services be provided or should you pack a lunch? You will expel a lot of energy during rounds. Be sure to eat a nutritious meal and stay hydrated!

Commuting to the Hospital or Clinic

Plan your commute! Visit the physical location prior to your first day of the clinical rotation. Many medical students assume Google Maps will get them to where they need to be on time, but this isn’t always the case. Make sure you know where to park, what building to enter, and account for daily variations in traffic. See if there are areas of construction to be aware of and have an alternate path planned in case of emergency.

If you are taking public transportation, download the local app (if applicable) but also bookmark important websites on your phone. Have an alternative prepared in case the public transport is down. Generally, preceptors are understanding of these types of limitations. But don’t forget that first impressions matter! 

If you have your own mode of transportation, it can be easy to forget when the last tune-up was. Do you have a spare tire and a jack? What about tools or roadside assistance in case our vehicle breaks down? It’s a good idea to have your vehicle serviced before starting your first externship. A little forethought can prevent massive stress when accidents inevitably occur. 

Lastly, what emergency contacts might you be able to reach? Have at least two classmates’ numbers so they can inform the physician if you are running late. The hospital or clinic’s operator or manager number is also good to have ready. Also, have someone’s number that is not going to be in the clinic today in case you need a ride.

Setting Expectations During Your First Day

Plan questions for your preceptor ahead of time if you wish to clarify details. This may be regarding the rotation itself, requirements for a strong letter of recommendation, or even residency questions. Preparing these ahead and storing them may prevent you from forgetting to ask in the busy clinical setting.  

Determine the preceptor’s expectations on day one. This is the most common recommendation from physicians and often overlooked by medical students. The clinical instructor may assume a certain level of responsibility, knowledge, or experience of a student. The student may assume a quality of education, patient or procedural diversity, or level of training from their preceptor. However, without clarifying each person’s expectations initially both parties increase their chances of disappointment.

Do they need you at the clinic at a strict time each day? What happens if you are late? Are there presentations, assignments, or case reports to prepare? What is the correct or incorrect way to present this material? Is there a unique dress-code for this clerkship? How can a medical learner “stand above the pack?” What is requested for a letter of recommendation? What is expected of patient interactions? Will there be procedures available to explore? There are many questions that can shed light on how to best perform during that clerkship.

Be Professional and Respectful

Although university and hospital staff may constantly say to “be professional” while on clinical rotation, it is not always clear what this means in each situation. Here are just a few general guidelines that may also be accidentally overlooked during a busy externship.

Your first clinical rotation is likely to be a new environment with many unknowns. However, if you follow these simple guidelines you will gain respect from your colleagues and appreciation from your preceptor. With a little bit of research and some common sense, you can rock your first clinical rotation!

Chase DiMarco

Chase DiMarco

Chase is an MS, MBA-HA, and MD/Ph.D-candidate. He is the Founder and educator at MedEd University, host of the Medical Mnemonist podcast and Rounds to Residency podcast, co-author of Read This Before Medical School, and is the CEO of FindARotation clinical rotations platform.

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