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A doctor’s most valuable trait

Diploma Programme (DP) graduate Harry Liu offers advice for IB students considering a career in medicine. As a recent graduate of medical school and with first-hand experience working the front lines of the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic, he notes the importance of adaptability.

A doctor’s most valuable trait

By Harry Liu

You may have just started medical school this year or may be in your last year of IB Diploma Programme (DP) before entering medicine. After completing medical school last year, I can reassure you that it is an exciting time, where you will meet a group of people with the most diverse backgrounds and talents, and people who will be your future colleagues or even friends for life. At the same time, you will most likely face ups and downs, along with a lot of rewarding experiences, and you will find obstacles that you need to overcome. You will learn new skills, like how to advocate for minorities who need help, how to break bad news in an empathic way, and how to think from multiple perspectives. However, there is one skill that may require you to step out of your comfort zone to learn. That is the ability to deal with uncertainty and adapt accordingly.

“If you decided to be a doctor, medicine is a career that demands you to maneuver through uncertainty and be constantly flexible”.

People who go into medicine are often the ones you think know the right questions to ask during lectures, the right study resources to get or choose the right answers on the exams, but knowing a single right answer isn’t necessarily what makes a good doctor. It puts us at disadvantage when dealing with uncertainty because we have gotten used to needing the ‘right answer’, which gives us the feeling of being in control. However, in medicine, there are situations when there are no straight answers or clear diagnosis. It is also common to see the diagnosis changes multiple times as the time goes on. This goes back to an important concept in medicine called differential diagnosis, which is a list of possible diagnoses ranked from being the most likely to the least likely. For example, if an elderly person came to the emergency department with chest pain, the differential diagnosis may include heart attack, pneumothorax, aortic dissection or even shingles. However, the order of diagnoses can change dramatically depending what questions you ask the patients, what physical examination maneuvers to perform and which tests you order. Sometimes, the final diagnosis may not be even on the differential diagnosis in the first place. If you decided to be a doctor, medicine is a career that demands you to maneuver through uncertainty and be constantly flexible.

With the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic, life is filled with even more uncertainty. When the pandemic first hit Canada in March, I was working in the ICU on the frontline. The situation required me to persistently adapt to the unpredictability. Many medical schools are online now, and students are learning clinical skills from watching videos at home. Your day-to-day routine may have been turned upside down. You may not be able to meet your friends or visit your families. Change is uncomfortable. However, I would encourage you to face the situation with some positivity. Everything starts with a good mentality. It is important to learn to accept uncertainty because you would be more ready to cope with the unknown once you accept it. As for medicine, uncertainty is a natural and unavoidable part of it. You need to allow yourself to be OK with not knowing the right answer and be willing to make mistakes.

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“I am learning every day how to deal with uncertainty better and how to best help my patients”.

Next is to recognize your emotions. When you become physicians, you will often be faced with emotionally-charged and taxing situations. Similarly, fighting against the uncertainty of the pandemic can be emotionally draining. You may be overwhelmed with fear, anxiety and other negative emotions. It is crucial for you to figure out ways that work for you to best deal with these emotions. It can be anything, from taking deep breaths, meditating, playing guitar or calling your friends. Last, focus on the present and the things you can take control of and aim for what you can accomplish today given what is happening around you.

I am doing my dermatology residency training now. I constantly encounter the challenges of looking at patients’ rash and having to generate a list of differential diagnoses. I am learning every day how to deal with uncertainty better and how to best help my patients. The silver lining of the pandemic for you is that it gives you a golden opportunity to learn how to deal with uncertainty in your own way. Grab the opportunity and you will become a better doctor in the future because adaptability is a doctor’s most valuable trait.

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Harry (Chaocheng) Liu graduated from the IB bilingual diploma in 2010 in Beijing, China. He obtained his Bachelor of Science degree in biochemistry from McGill University and Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Alberta in Canada. He initiated a range of projects in the field of patient advocacy and medical education over the past several years. He is particularly passionate about reducing unnecessary and potentially harmful tests and treatments for patients to improve their health outcomes, and he published related research articles. Currently, he is a dermatology resident doctor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and he has particular interest in global health and skin of color in dermatology.

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