“Intern.” Interesting term to say the least. It is one with multiple meanings and several potential implications. At least as it pertains to medicine, it is a term that inspires a fair bit of confusion. I say this from personal experience. I have been the undergrad (and even the medical student) who didn’t know quite what “intern” meant. And now that I am an intern, I frequently find myself answering the question, “So…what exactly do you do?” So let’s demystify it, once and for all.
THE BASICS – WHAT IS AN INTERN?
In the medical world, an intern is a first-year resident, plain and simple. That’s really all it means. All of us, on our journey to becoming doctors in our respective specialties, go through an intern year (also referred to as internship). The term is certainly confusing because of what it implies in other professional fields, but in medicine it is a newly-minted physician in his or her first year of residency training. Whether you’re going into surgery, dermatology, cardiology, or radiology, all of us are interns at some point on our journey.
Now that we’ve defined it, what has internship been like for me? Let me start by saying that I am an intern in Internal Medicine, and I plan on going into Cardiology when it’s all said and done. Experiences certainly vary across specialties and training programs, so my perspective cannot be generalized to that of all interns. But there are undoubtedly common threads and themes which we all experience, so hopefully I can provide some insight into intern year by describing my personal experience.
The transition from medical school to residency is certainly anxiety-provoking to some degree. As with any transition to a new phase of life, the uncertainty of what lies ahead creates some stress. With that said, my transition to intern year was smoother than I anticipated. I felt that medical school, and particularly my sub-internships (rotations which 4th year medical students complete in their future field of residency, during which they act as an intern does), really prepared me well for intern year. There was certainly more work, with a much higher patient load. And there was also more responsibility, as I was now the physician rather than the student. But to me this is what has made intern year awesome. Taking ownership of patients and feeling that they were truly mine, being able to conduct myself as I wanted and create my own style as a physician, feeling that I was there to learn and provide the best care possible and not to impress someone else or achieve a high evaluation — all of these things made the transition to intern year more exciting than stressful.
THE WORKLOAD – HOW TOUGH IS IT?
Intern year is hard, no doubt. And it’s harder in some specialties and programs than others. But no matter what, you will work long hours and put in a lot of time at the hospital. I won’t sugar-coat things — there are definitely times when it’s a grind and the hours wear on you. There are lots of times when I can’t workout or see friends as much as I would like. With that said, I have been pleasantly surprised that I have been able to maintain a semblance of a life. Long inpatient months are broken up with brief stretches of outpatient time when you can work a more “normal” schedule, and maintain time for other aspects of life. Some programs are better at creating this schedule than others. But overall, I have been able to have fun in doses, and this has made for a tough but bearable year so far.
The key for me has been that I am doing residency in a place where I am really happy outside the hospital. When I do have free time, I am able to spend it doing things that I truly enjoy. Additionally, I really enjoy the people, my fellow interns and residents. I know that we all only have a degree of control over where we end up in the match. But if possible, I would try to end up in a program that has the location and the people that will best facilitate your happiness. This will go a long way towards your quality of life during intern year and residency.
Intern year is when you really get to figure out what it means to be a doctor. That is simultaneously very challenging and very exciting. You get to truly put in the time and care for your patients, which creates tough days of hard work but also tons of learning and growth. Because you have to really take ownership and be responsible for your patients, everything is amplified – your learning, your workload, and your stress, but also hopefully your connections with patients and your personal satisfaction. It is a year when maintaining balance is key. In my experience, it is rigorous but still allows time to enjoy yourself outside of work. One thing is for sure – internship will take a different shape for all of us; but it will be a huge step on the road toward becoming the physician we aspire to be, and it will likely teach us more than any of the steps that came before.