Before medical school in the USA, premed students can major in anything, provided they take a certain number of science courses and some other requirements. In addition to college, they shadow doctors, observe in clinics, and go on service trips to hospitals in other countries.
It seems like diligent premed students really want to learn about the profession they will give their lives to. But how much do these activities really make a difference once they are doctors? Here I describe an activity that I hope will give them a kind of enduring empathy that will make the a much better physician for their whole career. It is something simple. It is something that pays, that has flexible hours, and offers a unique perspective.
The point of it is to help premed students see their future patients as people with real lives, with families, with preferences for food, for music, for television, and for friends. But how can a premed student intimately embed themselves into a patient’s family? They can do this by working in home care. This does not require a nursing degree. In fact, it does not require any degree. A weekend CPR course is helpful. You should be up-to-date on your vaccines, flu, and more. Some even do a short course to become a Certified Nurse Assistant, but it is not necessary.
It is not hard to find in-home care jobs. They are advertised locally. Or you can join an outfit like Home Instead. The pay may be low and benefits few, but you are doing this for the experience. In some cases you might be able to tie it to a college course and get credit. It embeds you into a family for priceless experience of life outside of clinics and hospitals.
Why is this such a great idea? It is because in home care lets you see patients that will show up in the clinics in their homes where they love, are loved, and live. They are people who once had lives as vibrant as yours. They did not choose to become old or ill. These things happen to real people who continue to have their interests and passions, whether they can act on them or not.
Why should you develop the empathy that seeing patients as whole people will give? Because it might slow you down a bit. You may know the treatment for a given patient, so you don’t feel like listening to that soft, raspy voice. But giving all the dignity of being listened to helps a lot with health outcomes. If you get it at a visceral level that this is not just an ill body in front of you, but someone’s mother or daughter, your job will be both easier and more fulfilling.
Nick, at Michigan State University figured this out and did it before I knew about it. Now he has graduated, his friend Chris is helping my parents. Both are wonderful and I hope what they learn on the home side of care makes them better physicians in the future.