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Independence, supervision, and patient safety in residency training

By Kenneth M. Ludmerer


Since the late nineteenth century, medical educators have believed that there is one best way to produce outstanding physicians: put interns, residents, and specialty fellows to work in learning their fields. After appropriate scientific preparation during medical school, house officers (the generic term for interns, residents, and specialty fellows) need to jump into the clinical setting and begin caring for patients themselves. This means delegating to house officers the authority to write orders, make important management decisions, and perform major procedures. It is axiomatic in medicine that an individual is not a mature physician until he has learned to care for patients independently. Thus, the assumption of responsibility is the defining principle of graduate medical education.

To develop independence, house officers receive major responsibilities for the care of their patients. They typically are the first to evaluate the patient on admission, speak with the patients on rounds, make all the decisions, write the orders and progress notes, perform the procedures, and are the first to be called should a problem arise with one of their patients. Such responsibility allows house officers not only to develop independence but also to acquire ownership of their patients — the sense that the patients are theirs, that they are the ones responsible for their patients’ medical outcomes and well-being. Medical educators view the assumption of responsibility as the factor that transforms physicians-in-training into capable practitioners.

By National Cancer Institute [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By National Cancer Institute Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Independence and responsibility are not given to house officers cavalierly. Rather, they are earned by residents who show themselves to be mature and capable. Responsibility is typically provided in “graded” fashion — that is, junior house officers have much more circumscribed responsibilities, while more experienced house officers who have accomplished their earlier tasks well are advanced to positions of greater responsibility. The more a resident has progressed, the more independence that resident receives.

The assumption of independence and responsibility comes at different rates for different house officers. Advancement to positions of greater responsibility occurs relatively quickly in cognitive fields like neurology, pediatrics, and internal medicine. There, assistant residents in their second or third year receive decision-making authority even for very sick individuals. Among these fields, house officers in pediatrics are generally monitored more closely because of the fragility of their patients, particularly babies and toddlers. Advancement occurs more slowly in procedural fields, such as general surgery, obstetrics and gynecology, and the surgical subspecialties. In these fields, technical proficiency is so important that residents have to wait many years, sometimes until they are chief residents, to perform certain major operations. The degree of independence afforded house officers also depends on the traditions and culture of individual hospitals. At community hospitals, where private physicians are in charge of their own private patients, house officers often receive too little responsibility. At municipal and county hospitals, where charity patients predominate and teaching staffs are often small, house officers can easily receive too much.

The assumption of responsibility does not mean there is no supervision of house officers. Quite the contrary. House officers are accountable to the chief of service, they have regular contact with attending physicians, and chief residents keep an extremely close eye on the resident service. Moreover, someone more senior is typically present or, if not physically present, immediately available. Thus, interns are closely watched by junior residents, junior residents by senior residents, and senior residents by the chief resident. One generation teaches and supervises the next, even though these generations are separated only by a year or two. Backup and support are available for all residents from attending physicians, consultants, and the chiefs of service. The gravest moral offense a house officer can commit is not to call for help.

From the perspective of patient safety, it may seem that patients should be seen only by experienced physicians and surgeons. However, medical educators have recognized all along that this is not a viable option. Medical education incurs the dual responsibility for ensuring the current safety of patients seen during the training process and the future safety of patients of tomorrow seen by those undergoing training today. Every physician needs to gain clinical experience, and every physician faces a day of reckoning when he practices medicine independently for the first time—that is, without anyone looking over his shoulder or immediately available for help. The only choice medical educators have is to control the circumstances in which this will happen. Should house officers gain experience and develop independence within the structured confines of a teaching hospital, where help can readily be obtained, or must this occur afterward in practice at the potential expense of the first patients who present themselves?

Thus, maximizing safety in graduate medical education is a complex task, for the needs of both present and future patients must be taken into account. The system of graded responsibility provided house officers by the residency system, coupled with careful supervision of house officers’ work, has been developed to maximize professional growth among trainees while at the same time maximizing the safety of patients entrusted to them for care. The system is not perfect, but no one in the United States or anywhere else has yet come up with a better system, and it continues to serve the public well.

Kenneth M. Ludmerer is Professor of Medicine and the Mabel Dorn Reeder Distinguished Professor of the History of Medicine at the Washington University School of Medicine. He is the author of the forthcoming Let Me Heal: The Opportunity to Preserve Excellence in American Medicine (1 October 2014), Time to Heal: American Medical Education from the Turn of the Century to the Era of Managed Care (1999), and Learning to Heal: The Development of American Medical Education (Basic Books, 1985).

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