What It's Like to See a Patient for the First Time

A medical student answers questions about what it was like to see a patient for the first time during medical school.

Amanda Xi

Amanda Xi

Medical School: Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine, 2015

Future plans: I’m looking into a variety of specialties including anesthesia, radiology, and cancer genetics. But it’s too soon to tell what I’ll end up pursuing!


When did you first see a patient?

I saw my first patient during my first semester of medical school.

What was the hospital like?

I always felt a surge of excitement when I watched television shows like "Grey’s Anatomy," because the hospital environment was just so fascinating. But actually being in the building, on a patient floor, in the intimate space of the patient’s room…it was surreal. The experience was almost like being transported into Meredith Grey’s shoes but without a script.

Nurses shuffled in and out of the room. A symphony of machines whirred around me. Harsh fluorescent lighting illuminated the scene. The only difference in this episode (and all other episodes of seeing patients) was that the patient was the star, not the physician.

What were your responsibilities?

During my first patient encounter, my partner and I were responsible for obtaining a “history of present illness” (what brought the patient into the hospital) and the patient’s vital signs (temperature, blood pressure, pulse, respiratory rate). Although these seemed like simple enough tasks, we discovered from our physician preceptor that there are a lot of different ways to interview patients. Furthermore, I was so nervous that I put the blood pressure cuff on backwards!

Were you nervous?

Absolutely (see the part about blood pressure above)! I distinctly remember the “thump, thump” of my heart pumping at its full capacity as we entered the patient’s room. Even after we had settled down into our places (I was in a chair at the foot of the patient’s bed) and started asking questions, I felt the adrenaline coursing through my vessels.

What did you learn?

The most important thing you can do as a first-year medical student seeing a patient is to listen actively. The moment you put on your white coat, all of your words and actions mean so much more to those that you interact with, especially patients.

Show that you truly care for the patient as an individual by engaging them in a conversation—not an interview. Simple gestures such as leaning in toward the patient while they are speaking and repeating what is said in your own words show that you care and can really go a long way.

What do you wish you’d known before the first experience?

It’s completely normal to feel unprepared and unqualified to see your first patient—especially as a medical student.

But in order to be effective physicians, we constantly need to throw ourselves into these situations to get more experience so that someday we’ll walk into the patient’s room, extend our hand and say, “I’m Doctor Xi. What brings you in today?”