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I Don’t Know: The Medical Student Motto

It took one day of medical school to kick me off the high horse I rode through the months leading up to it.

“Repeat after me,” said one of our administrators as he quieted down the eager students. “I am a first-year, and I know nothing. Remember that.”

It was completely true. (A year later, it probably still is.) To all of my family members who keep asking me what that rash is: I don’t know. To all of my friends from college who ask me if they can still drink while on a certain medication: the answer is probably no, but I have no idea. And finally, to my parents who asked if something my dog swallowed would kill her: I am not in veterinary school.

Since the day I was accepted into medical school, the people around me suddenly saw me as a doctor with a vast pool of knowledge. Perhaps my friends and family were too supportive to know enough to doubt me, but I have no doubt that other medical students experience much the same thing.

A year later, I have some knowledge. To be honest, I occasionally recognize something from my studies or something that I have seen in clinic. In those cases, I have to calm myself down at the idea that I actually know something useful. I still do not know enough to diagnose a patient properly or to give the right answer when someone asks me a medical question. I might be able to help my brother buy the right over-the-counter cream for that rash on his arm.

In short, that makes me only slightly more qualified to disperse health care advice than a neurotic mother using WebMD.

My lack of knowledge does not stop people from asking me for advice, though, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Every question is an opportunity to apply the facts I learn every day to something real, or to look up the answer and learn it that way. I am never afraid to say “I don’t know” in those situations, and I hope that never changes.

I hope what does change is the frequency with which I say it. Every question that is asked of me is one that I will ask someone with more experience who can teach me the answer. With time, I will never have to say “I don’t know ” to the same question twice.

The reason that we go into the field of medicine is that we like being constantly challenged by questions. We like the process of finding the answers, and we want to be able to apply our knowledge to a good cause. Part of our development is having enough confidence in ourselves to say “I don’t know.”

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Daniel Lefler Daniel Lefler (3 Posts)

Contributing Writer Emeritus

Cooper Medical School of Rowan University

Daniel Lefler is a member of the Class of 2016 at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University in Camden, NJ. He studied neuroscience at The College of William & Mary. His passion is the medical sciences, but he also enjoys the performing arts.