How to manage patient care while staying up to date on medical literature

By Kristen Fuller, MD
Published June 16, 2023

Key Takeaways

I remember in residency being completely overwhelmed by the long hours, caring for patients, and studying for boards. I couldn't fathom going home after a stressful 12-hour work day to study. A few years after residency, I began to realize that hindsight is 20/20. 

Studying is a requirement of residency

In residency, I had no choice about whether or not I wanted to study—I had to pass my in-training exams and, ultimately, my board exam. I combed through medical journals and popular board topics, reading as much as I could. But once I entered the “real world” of medicine, I realized I was no longer held to that standard. Studying is technically over once we finish residency, but is it really?

Although I no longer have to sit down for hours a day reading popular board-tested topics, I still have to stay up to date on new guidelines, treatment regimens, and popular trending topics in medicine.

On the other hand, I don’t have anyone quizzing me during rounds or reminding me to study for my boards. But maybe this is an example of how my medical training has evolved. Patients still ask me questions, and I am constantly researching things I don’t have answers to. 

To quote an article on Medscape: “The amount of medical knowledge is said to double every 73 days, making it much tougher for physicians to identify innovative findings and newer guidelines for helping patients. Yet not keeping up with the latest information can put doctors at risk.”

So while I feel I can breathe a little easier, knowing I don’t have any upcoming exams, I still must keep current on medical literature while tending to my patients. Luckily, I have learned how to make this fun instead of a chore. 

Patients are our greatest teachers

We begin learning from patients in medical school when we’re taught how to treat them. Although we study disease processes in textbooks and lectures, each disease manifests differently in each patient. Only by understanding how the disease presents and affects individuals with different genetics and personal histories can we learn how to diagnose and treat patients effectively. 

"We must be able to communicate with empathy and understanding to gather the intricate details of a patient’s history and symptoms to make an educated diagnosis."

Kristen Fuller, MD

Besides honing our interpersonal skills and mastering human connection, our patients also teach us what we don’t know. 

They ask us questions about everything. If a patient asks me a question I don’t know the answer to, I explain that medicine is a continuous learning process, and we then take a few minutes to look up the answer together. Regarding this, I always think of this quote by William Osler

"He who studies medicine without books sails an uncharted sea, but he who studies medicine without patients does not go to sea at all."

William Osler

Updating the old ways of learning 

I fear that textbooks, in-person medical conferences, and print journals are bordering on obsolete, especially post-pandemic. I attend virtual conferences, subscribe to my favorite medical newsletters, and read journals online. I also have apps on my phone (UpToDate, Epocrates, and Medscape are my go-to) that allow me to quickly look up information on the fly.

Speaking of my phone, social media can also be a great resource—I follow a number of young physicians who create entertaining and informative content related to their specialties. This sort of content can be small snippets of information or helpful links to evidence-based journal articles. 

Medical podcasts are some of the best ways to passively learn about interesting medical cases or new medical information. Whether on a long road trip, cleaning my house, or going for a run, I always have a medical podcast downloaded on my phone to help me pass the idle time.

And, although I love print journals and hard-copy textbooks, I have learned to adapt to these new virtual avenues.

"It is extremely important to keep a list of your favorite learning resources specific to your specialty."

Kristen Fuller, MD

You don’t have to memorize all the details of the latest research, but you must know how to access this information—whether it is new screening guidelines, vaccination schedules, or new dosing on medication. As these details change often, it’s important to have your favorite references at your fingertips.

Set aside time to read each week

In residency, I would consistently read one journal article daily, but the further I got from residency, the less well-read I became. Now, I know that I must keep a schedule, and I try to assign myself one journal article per week. Sometimes I miss a week (or two), but usually, I find the time—either over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.

There is no set amount of time or number of pages you should be reading to keep up with your clinical knowledge. You don’t want to become burned out, but you do want to stay engaged with new information. Figure out what you don’t know, ask peers and patients questions, read journals, listen to podcasts, and expand your knowledge in the ways that work best for you.

Each week in our "Real Talk" series, mental health advocate Kristen Fuller, MD, shares straight talk about situations that affect the mental and emotional health of today's healthcare providers. Each column offers key insights to help you navigate these challenging experiences. We invite you to submit a topic you'd like to see covered.

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