The Role of Ritual in Medical Training

While Final Exam, a memoir by transplant surgeon Dr. Pauline Chen, deals primarily with doctors’ troubled relationship with death and dying, I was struck most by an essay that deals directly with medical training’s preoccupation with protocol, algorithm, routine, and ritual. For Chen, rituals during her medical training were the foundation on which she built her persona and expertise as a doctor. Medicine is challenging, and ritual is the mechanism by which students—and later, physicians—break down complicated or otherwise difficult tasks in order to approach situations calmly, competently, and treat patients effectively. The harder the situation, the more essential it is to have a ritual to fall back on, as Chen describes how her routines helped steady her during an emotionally challenging pediatric transplant by allowing her to mindlessly do a procedure she had long since mastered.

My favorite ritual example in Final Exam, pre-surgical hand-washing, illustrates both its positive and negative effects. At first, the routine of scrubbing helped Chen ensure that she observed proper sterile technique; by following the ritual, she achieved technical competence and kept her patients safe. Furthermore, the mindless routine of the ritual was a form of calming meditation, a quiet break that helped separated her—emotionally and temporally—from both her clinical and surgical duties.

Years later (and after years of physical discomfort from an aggressive, skin-damaging style), Chen discovered that she was behind the times: she could achieve the same results by scrubbing for five minutes instead of ten and using a soft sponge instead of hard irritating bristles. The danger of ritual is that it leads doctors to routines that may reinforce bad habits, make it challenging to adapt to advances in patient care, or shield us from responding emotionally to our patients. Chen writes:

After nine years of clinical training, I found it hard to conceive of doing these clinical tasks any differently. In, I fact, I believed there was no other way, because these rituals were what assured the quality of my practice. They were what made me a good doctor.

This devotion to ritual is what helps training doctors learn the way of doing things correctly, even when the way is perhaps not the best way. While rituals may be a necessary first step in the learning process, the art of medicine lies not just in following the ritual effectively—but rather in when knowing to deviate. As Chen argues, a good surgeon doesn’t just know how to perform the right maneuvers; she knows how to fix the surprises that invariably pop up in the moment. It is when we fail to leave room for change in our devotion to ritual that our development as physicians stagnates, because while “they protect us from doing the wrong thing, their protective logic can shield us from fully shouldering responsibility.” (94) If we do everything correctly, the logic goes, then the negative consequences must be beyond our control.

Hand-washing is a relatively benign example because Chen was only hurting herself, but ritual pervades every aspect of medical training and practice, from memorizing the steps of the physical exam to sharing difficult news with a terminally-ill patient. The negative consequences of these rituals are only complicated by the role of the “informal curriculum” in medical training, the instruction that indoctrinates young doctors with the habits of their superiors. What happens when the rituals themselves are faulty? What happens when the carefully rehearsed patterns are themselves a source of doctor error?

In our first year training we learned physical exam techniques from both fourth year students and faculty preceptors. Both groups stressed the importance of learning the rituals of different exams, the routines on which to build our future competence, and so we robotically went through the motions, verbalizing our steps and performing the exam with techniques that only appeared analogous to the real thing. The emphasis was on “pretend” competency: the ability to look like a doctor on camera. This is not a shortcoming of any one school but rather an unfortunate result of the nation’s century-old curriculum design, one that places inordinate importance on some topics to the exclusion of others (oblivious of clinical importance). Soon, undoubtedly and embarrassingly, our class will have to relearn how to perform exam techniques in order to actually evaluate our patients. Right now, the sham ritual is all we have.

As Chen says, the clinical aphorism is “see one, do one,” which means that as doctors we train to master the mistakes of our mentors. Our early success will depend directly on how well we copy our teachers (because it is our teachers, with their idiosyncrasies, that evaluate us). And while rituals may be a useful crutch in the short term, it’s not hard to imagine the future consequences. When our patient interactions become ritualized—each sentence just another item on a mental checklist—our patients will be reduced to a given number of steps. The more times we use our algorithms, the easier it will be to categorize our patients as cases, people as diseases, and conversation as a technical skill—instead of an intrinsic part of what makes us human. This reduction is the process of dehumanization that comes with the epidemic of physician burn-out, naked cynicism, and is a chief component of patient dissatisfaction. It is a mainstay of a generation of medicine we should hope to overcome.


vivek gharpure 03.05.10 Reply

well said. the burden of ritual and dogma in medicine can be overpowering. but people expect us to follow some rules. our observance of rituals gives them some comfort that we are doing the right thing. that is necessary isn’t it? medicine keeps evolving.

Ben 03.06.10 Reply

Certainly. And the current trends have these rituals being evaluated for effectiveness. But many of them, especially the more idiosyncratic preferences of individual doctors, are still taught with a rigor that is masks how ineffective they might otherwise be. Thanks for the comment!

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