Story by Erin Luhmann ’08
Studying a language abroad has long been popular among foreign language majors looking to gain fluency. Now pre-med students at Gustavus Adolphus College are using a similar technique to achieve fluency in clinical jargon. But this immersion experience doesn’t require a passport.
Through the medical scribe program, students support physicians at partner hospitals in the Twin Cities by recording each patient consultation. It’s a responsibility that requires precision, stamina, and dedication, but there’s plenty of incentive to motivate scribes. Those who do well find that their mastery of the technical language, paired with the patient care they witness up close, boosts their confidence and helps them secure a competitive advantage over their medical school peers.
“It’s a fast way of spot testing whether medicine is for you,” said Rachel Warnert ’13, a current scribe at Abbot Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis.
Heather Banks, the health professions coordinator on campus, recently began connecting Gustavus students with scribe opportunities. She recognized the advantages paid scribe positions hold over other volunteer positions in clinical settings.
“You can get paid and gain a lot of valuable experience,” she said. “Scribing is an opportunity to gain experience with a doctor where you have a role. You’re not just in there shadowing, you’re actually contributing to the team.”
This allocation of responsibility is central to all three scribe organizations that have been established in Minnesota in the past seven years. After an intensive training period, scribes are entrusted with updating patient records. Not only are they expected to navigate medical terminology that they may be encountering for the first time, but they are also expected to honor patient confidentiality and to not fall behind.
“The patient chart is basically your responsibility from the moment you go in to see the patient with the doctor,” said Ben Meyer ’12, a former scribe at two Fairview hospitals. “The liability is still on them, but we expedite the process.”
This collaboration model demands around-the-clock accuracy because hospitals don’t shut down at night. Warnert is familiar with the demanding schedule.
Clocking in at 6 p.m., she prepared to document patient charts on her portable computer station for the next 10 hours. It’s a tedious task with a steep learning curve, but Warnert recommends it whole-heartedly.
“It allows you to speak so much more knowledgably about the practical side of medicine,” she said, adding she has already been accepted to one of the medical school programs she’d applied to for the upcoming school year.
Warnert studied biology and religion at Gustavus. She decided to take advantage of a gap year to gain experience as a medical scribe through the Emergency Care Consultants (ECC) Scribes program to improve her eligibility and acquire applicable anecdotes for medical school interviews.
Warnert feels the rigor of the position tested her commitment to pursuing a medical degree, a challenge that was both formative and validating.
“I definitely feel like I have more backing behind why it’s what I want to do,” she said. “It’s helped me focus where I want to go with medicine.”
After working in the emergency department, as well as with internal medicine patients, she is most compelled to pursue primary care. She appreciates empowering people to be proactive with their own health, and learned that communication skills are just as vital as medical knowledge when it comes to helping patients.
Crediting her scribe experience for refining her focus, she explained, “One of the great benefits of this job is you get to watch [the doctors’] decision making process. You get to see them interact with patients. You get to see how they decide to present different information, learn how to read patients, and react in different ways.”
When Meyer looked back on his scribe experience, he also mentioned how influential it was to observe the various ways physicians handled patient interactions.
“The way I thought about it, is I want to incorporate the best of what I saw from the doctors in the E.R. into my practice,” he said.
His scribe experience may have influenced his patient care strategy, but he acknowledged the foundational knowledge he gained through his undergraduate coursework at Gustavus as well.
“I think the whole liberal arts education is really useful going into medicine,” he said. “Being able to appreciate people with different backgrounds, having that general knowledge, is something I think is particularly useful in medicine as the patient population expands in the United States, in terms of diversity.”
Meyer managed to study abroad for a semester in the United Kingdom, before working as a part-time scribe at two Fairview hospitals during his senior year. He’s currently completing his second year at the University of South Dakota-Sanford School of Medicine. Here, he feels he has a competitive advantage over his peers who haven’t practiced charting patients like he did as a medical scribe.
“We’ve had a little bit of that already and I was significantly ahead of everyone else, having had prior experience charting and writing a History of Patient Illness,” he said.
Before tackling medical lingo in a clinical environment, most pre-med students at Gustavus take a course called Medical Terminology. Michael Klajda ’13, a first-year medical student at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, remembers how this course alleviated some of the stress of transitioning into medical school.
“Having a solid understanding of common medical vocabulary has made my life a lot easier in school and allows me to focus on the more difficult material instead of first memorizing terms,” he said.
Klajda began working as a scribe at two Fairview hospitals the summer before his senior year. He also took advantage of medical ethics coursework offered at Gustavus to refine his approach to medicine.
Warnert emphasizes that the writing-heavy curriculum at Gustavus translates well into the modern medical environment.
“You spend four years learning all this stuff and becoming a good writer,” she said. “And now I get to use those skills in the area I really want to be in.”
Nearing the end of her scribe program, Warnert has no problem summing up the culmination of her educational and experiential preparation for medical school.
“I feel like I’m ready to go into medical school from all standpoints,” she said. “Prior to this job, I felt ready from an intellectual standpoint and a theoretical standpoint. But now I feel confident walking into a patient’s room and understanding my role in the room.”
About the Author
Erin Luhmann graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College in 2008 with a major in English and a minor in peace studies. She then taught English in Kyrgyzstan as a Peace Corps Volunteer (’08-’10) and completed a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2013. As a graduate student, she won a New York Times contest to travel and report alongside columnist Nicholas Kristof in West Africa. She now works as a freelance reporter in Minnesota.
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