We All Struggle With the Unwritten Rules of Medical Culture

Jennifer L. Lycette, MD


March 23, 2022

There is a two-lane bridge in my town. It is quaint and picturesque, and when we first moved here, I would gaze out at the water as I drove, letting my mind wander along with the seagulls drifting alongside the car. Until one day, crossing back over, I passed a school bus stopped in the other lane, and instead of waving back, the driver gave me such a fierce look of disapproval I felt like I'd been to the principal's office. What had I done?

I started paying more attention to the pattern of the other cars on the bridge. Although it appeared to be a standard two-lane width, the lanes weren't quite wide enough if a school bus or large truck needed to cross at the same time as a car coming from the opposite direction. They had to wait until the other lane was clear. It was an unwritten rule of the town that if you saw a school bus on the other side, you stopped your car and yielded the bridge to the bus. It took me weeks to figure this out. When I did, I felt like I finally belonged in the community. Before, I'd been an outsider.

This got me thinking about culture. Every place has its unwritten rules, whether a community or a workplace. But how do we know the culture of a place? It's pretty much impossible until we experience it for ourselves.

When I did figure out the bridge, I had a little bit of anger, to be honest. How was I supposed to know about the lanes? There weren't any signs. Geez.

Now, when I approach the bridge, I don't even think about it. I know what to do if I see a bus coming.

But sometimes I remember that time of confusion before I deciphered the unwritten rule. I still have a twinge of guilt for having done something wrong, even though it hadn't been my fault.

It reminded me of a memory from medical training. I was an MS4, and my ER rotation was in a busy county hospital with a level I trauma center. To say that the place was chaotic would be an understatement.

On the first morning, I was shown the chart rack (yes, this was back in the day of paper charts). Charts were placed in the order that patients arrived. Med students and residents were to take a chart in chronologic order, go triage and assess the patient, and then find an attending. Once finished, you put the chart back on the rack and picked up the next one. This was the extent of my orientation to the ER.

The days and weeks of the rotation flew by. It was a busy and exciting time. By the end of the month, I'd come to feel a part of the team.

Until one day, after finishing discharging a patient, an attending asked me, "Where's the billing sheet?"

I had no idea what she was talking about. No one had ever shown me a billing sheet. But by this point, as an MS4, I knew well that if an attending asked you something you didn't know the answer to, you shouldn't just say that you didn't know. You should try to figure out if you could at least approximate an answer first.

As I scrambled in my mind to figure out what she was asking me, she took one look at the apprehension in my eyes and asked again, raising her voice, "You haven't been doing the billing sheets?"

I thought back to the first day of the rotation. The cursory thirty-second orientation. Chart rack. Take one. See the patient. Put it back. See the next patient. Nothing about billing sheets.

"No," I said. "No one ever told me about—"

But the attending didn't care that I hadn't been instructed on the billing sheets. She ripped into me, yelling about how she couldn't believe I'd been working there the entire month and was not doing the billing sheets. She showed me what they were and where they were supposed to be going and, in front of the whole staff, treated me like not only the biggest idiot she'd ever worked with but that the hospital had ever seen.

As she berated me, I thought about all the patients I'd seen that month. All the billing sheets I hadn't placed in the pile. All the attendings who hadn't gotten credit for the patients they'd staffed with me.

But how could I have known? I wanted to ask. How could I have known if nobody showed me or told me?

It was like the bridge. I was in a new environment and somehow expected to know the rules without anyone telling me; and when I didn't know, people treated me like I'd done it the wrong way on purpose.

I didn't end up saying anything more to that attending. What could I have said? She had already unleashed a mountain of her pent-up anger at me.

What I did decide in that moment was that I would never be an attending like that.

Like the bridge, this memory years later can still make me feel guilt and shame for doing something wrong. Even though it wasn't my fault.

I was thinking about this recently with the Match. Thousands of freshly graduated medical students embarking on their new positions as interns in teaching hospitals across the country.

For anyone who, like me, struggled with the unwritten rules of the medical culture with each new rotation, remember to be kind to yourself. If someone treats you poorly for not knowing something, you are not an idiot. You've worked incredibly hard to get where you are, and you deserve to be there.

For attendings and more senior trainees, remember what it was like to be starting in a new place. We all make mistakes, and often it's simply because of a lack of information.

Trainees shouldn't have to suffer and be made to feel like outsiders until they figure out the unwritten rules of the place. They belong.

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About Dr Jennifer Lycette
Jennifer L. Lycette, MD, is a rural community hematologist-oncologist, mom of three, and recovering perfectionist who's writing her way back from physician burnout, one word at a time. Her essays have been published in The Intima, The New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, JAMA Oncology, Journal of Clinical Oncology, The ASCO Post, and more. Connect with her on Twitter @JL_Lycette or her website.


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