“Senior” House Officer: Doc, where’s my steth?

Firmly in the category of Things No One Asked For (wedged between merchandising coffee mugs and your annual pelvic exam) this one is all about how I spent my Senior House Officer year. If anyone is still reading this to get some idea about medical life in Jamaica, you’re in luck. Everyone else, bear with me.

For my SHO year (the second year of relative supervision, coming after internship and before postgraduate study), I spent four months at the hospital in Internal Medicine and eight months in primary care bouncing around the clinics of St. James and Hanover. I had wanted an even six month split but the powers-that-be changed the schedule from two six-month rotations to three rotations of four months each, likely as an incentive for doctors to spend at least some of their time in primary care (which is woefully understaffed).

While I enjoy solving the diagnostic mysteries of Internal Medicine and relish the mental challenges of our limited resource setting, I did not particularly like my time at the hospital. One of the reasons is the aforementioned limited resources, which made it exponentially harder to get the job done (the job being getting the patient better and out of the hospital) but another more important reason was the unhealthy and sometimes toxic working atmosphere.

Doctors in hospitals across the world have to battle against so many barriers to effective patient care. Sure there are administrative and technical hurdles, but one of the most damaging and pervasive problems doctors face is other doctors. We can be unkind and unsympathetic toward our colleagues, we can be harsh and critical where kindness and compassion are needed. We can be overly competitive, deliberately misleading, and frankly aggressive. Specialties often argue instead of cooperating, departmental heads are sometimes overbearing and the support staff is at times less than supportive.

I frequently left work feeling like I spent the last 8-36 hours running a hamster wheel, exhausting myself and getting nowhere. For all my efforts I was yet to see any noticeable improvement in the quality of care being offered, and in fact quality of care was on the decline as Cornwall Regional was on the brink of a crisis by the time I had moved to my next rotation.

Unlike its older brother, primary care has no pretensions about the level of care it is able to offer. Clinics don’t promise CAT scans and then tell you the machine isn’t working; or promise urgent lab results that take hours to be processed. Primary care understands that its role is to prevent and screen, to catch the life-threatening emergencies before they become life-threatening. And that pace is so far suiting me just fine.

Hanover is the smallest parish in Jamaica, splitting its geography between enchanting sea vistas and rolling hills of green green bamboo. I spent my four months here really sharpening my clinical skills and patient interactions. I honed my management of chronic illnesses and developed some much-needed confidence (from all the time spent in clinic by myself because there weren’t enough senior doctors available). Hanover’s narrow, winding roads are where I learnt to drive and the country clinics reinforced all the stories I hear about the generosity of rural folk. I was sad to leave it behind.

(Spoiler alert: I’m stationed back in Hanover for the foreseeable future)

The camaraderie and team spirit were like a breath of fresh air after Cornwall’s sometimes hostile overtones. I felt more comfortable offering care at a less urgent pace (even though we had our fair share of emergencies!) and I appreciated the opportunity to effect behaviour change before it got to the stage where tertiary or secondary care was needed.

Despite challenges with patients’ educational level and access to care I still believe that primary care is where our efforts need to be concentrated if we are ever going to make our country truly healthy.

But enough about me. SHO year is all about testing the waters and seeing where your passion lies. It’s about picking up skills you think are important and spending time with physicians or surgeons or anesthetists who you think can teach you a thing or two. Internship is merely meant to be survived; SHO is where you thrive. Attack the smorgasbord of hospital specialties like an all-you-can-eat buffet, or settle down to dine at one specialty for the whole time – it’s up to you. Just remember that along the way you’re molding yourself into the medical officer or resident who will be the ‘senior’ by the start of the next year.

What kind of senior do you want to be?

2 thoughts on ““Senior” House Officer: Doc, where’s my steth?

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