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Teach Learn Med. 2018 Dec 15:1-12. doi: 10.1080/10401334.2018.1534693. [Epub ahead of print]

What Do Medical Students Do and Want When Caring for "Difficult Patients"?

Author information

1
a Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences , University of California , San Francisco , California , USA.
2
b Department of Medicine , University of California , San Francisco , California , USA.
3
c Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health , University of California , San Francisco , California , USA.
4
d Center for Research and Development of Education , University Medical Center Utrecht , Utrecht , Netherlands.

Abstract

Phenomenon: Medical students, like physicians, experience negative emotions such as frustration when interacting with some patients, and many of these interactions occur for the first time during clinical clerkships. Students receive preclinical training in the social and behavioral sciences, often including learning about "difficult patient" interactions, yet little is known about their desire for training during clinical education. We explored students' strategies in these difficult clinical interactions, whether they felt prepared by the curriculum, and what support they would have liked. These data inform proposed strategies for supporting clinical learning. Approach: We interviewed 4th-year students about interactions with patients toward whom they felt negative emotions and sought to identify strategies and supports needed in these interactions. Interviews ended when theoretical sufficiency was achieved. We used qualitative content analysis to organize strategies into themes about areas benefiting from curricular supports. We mapped students' desired curricular support examples to cognitive apprenticeship teaching methods-modeling, coaching, reflection, scaffolding, exploration, and articulation-and aligned them with traditional pedagogical techniques. Findings: We interviewed 26 medical students (44 volunteered/180 invited). Their strategies formed five themes: finding empathy (with a subtheme of focusing on social determinants of health), using learned communication approaches, anticipating challenging interactions, seeking support, and considering it an opportunity for more responsibility. Students described ideal clinical teaching, including postinteraction debriefs with an emphasis on validating their emotional reactions and challenges. Students mentioned all cognitive apprenticeship teaching methods, most prominently modeling (observing supervisors in such interactions) and supported oral reflection. They also identified a need for faculty and resident development to enact these teaching methods. Insights: Although students use some learned strategies in interactions in which they feel negative emotions toward patients, they desire more preparation and support during their clinical rotations. Their desires map to traditional pedagogical techniques and to methods of cognitive apprenticeship. Our findings point to the need to use these techniques to enhance clinical learning for students who experience emotionally challenging patient interactions.

KEYWORDS:

cognitive apprenticeship; difficult patients; emotion; medical education

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