Mar. 01, 2010

Testing Patients

by Dana Greenfield

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From the SATs to the MCAT and the Boards exams, I’ve been a career student. Tests have become a way of life, in a way. (Is that sad?) From multiple-choice to essay to true/false to oral exams, tests have been the predictable pacemakers of my career from high school through college, from college to medical school and graduate school.

BUT, they have never defined my path. Exams will never predict who I will become or how well I will do at it. And that will be true for you. No one exam can measure the value of your personal experiences, the way you see the world, or how you interact with it. They can only measure certain ways of thinking, certain types of knowledge, and given ways of organizing this complex world we live in.

The Boards don’t test for so many things: how will I interact and form relationships with patients? How will I think beyond algorithms and formulas to treat people individually and creatively? How will my non-linear way of thinking allow me to become an anthropologist and see the world in unique and more complex ways?

Daunting? Imprecise? Frustrating? Necessary evils? Yes. Impossible enough to deter us? Definitely not.

What else can keep these monstrous exams in perspective?

I’ve passed so many tests and have so many to come. But the number of tests in my life are nothing compared to the number I’ll run on patients. From the more mundane (cholesterol and sugar checks) to the more profound (prenatal and genetic screenings). Those are the results that matter. Those are the tests that change lives.

So while I’m sweating about the Boards, I remind myself that in comparison to the test results for cystic fibrosis, lupus, metastatic cancers, ALS, Huntington disease, and the thousands of other challenges patients may face, my tests pale in comparison.

So, yes, Step 1 is one of the most important exams I’ve ever taken. But it’s just another test. Just 8 hours of narrowly focused medical knowledge. And with so much uncertainty in life, in medicine, and in our own health, I welcome the reliability of these exams. So far, they’ve been one of the only constants in an uncertain (but exciting!) life.

Wish me luck on March 31st.

About Dana Greenfield

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