When I entered medical school five years ago, I was 18. I had not had so much as a gap year to prepare me, mentally and emotionally, for the rigours of university study, navigating the waters of new friendships, and isolation from the bustle of my many-children-ed family. I had the potential to be set adrift; to suffer from the social isolation that makes many consider leaving university.
During this transition, and through my time at medical school, it has been peer and near-peer support, both academically and socially, that enabled me to succeed.
Medical students and junior doctors, ask yourself: how many snippets of valuable knowledge have you only heard from final years or FY1s teaching less senior students? How many files of ‘secret’ question lists are stored somewhere on your hard drive, thanks to the benevolence of the year above’s collective efforts? How many times has an informal debrief of a difficult situation with a member of your cohort helped you get through the day?
The importance of your peers in medicine
Peers are generally considered people of a similar age, status or ability as yourself.
In medical school, neer-peer mentoring relationships are extremely common, as this is the cornerstone of the medical training programme – you’ve probably already had plenty of teaching from foundation level doctors (and some of your friends may well already be foundation doctors themselves!).
Why should I seek peer support?
You may be thinking to yourself – well, of course it’s great to have people similar to yourself around to chat to and help you out, be that academically or with other support. But surely it can’t impact your studies that much? Whilst there is still a need for some robust investigation into the value of peer and near-peer mentoring, some small studies of formal mentoring relationships have proven the benefits, both for the mentees and mentors.
A recent UK study of 109 undergraduates found that those enrolled into a formal peer mentoring programme found it easier to integrate into university, and had contemplated dropping out less than those students without a peer mentoring relationship. Mentoring helps with academics, it seems, too. When 241 Australian psychology students in their first year received mentoring from third-year students, grades in the mentored cohort went up and an increase in deep and strategic learning was noted.
And healthcare students specifically can benefit from peer mentoring. A study of first-year nursing students suggested mentoring helped with things like anxiety going into clinical areas, and increased interaction with the curriculum.
It is also thought that lack of peer mentoring, particularly informal social relationships, might be a factor in the attainment gap experienced by BME students at medical school. Peer and near-peer teaching and mentoring is also a valuable tool for transmission of the ‘hidden curriculum’ in which medicine is mired. With so much non-clinical, yet vital, information in medicine seemingly gained by osmosis, your peers and those immediately above and below you in seniority can be key sounding boards for giving and receiving wisdom. Whilst efforts have been made recently to dispel some of the myths of the hidden curriculum, particularly for first-in-family-medics like myself, peer relationships have been instrumental in allowing me to explore the less obvious aspects of medical culture that I otherwise would never have known about.
How can I build peer support networks?
For those in their later years of medical school or into foundation training, you probably already have some good support networks of peers and near-peers that have built organically. However, if you’re new to medical school, starting a job in a new place, or just want to expand your network of peer and near-peer contacts, you might like to explore some other options.
Clubs & Societies
University societies and sports teams are always go-to groups for developing networks through which you can build less formal peer relationships, be that over a rugby pitch, a D & D board, or anything else that takes your fancy. The range of university societies can be huge, and you can always contact your union about setting up one if you feel there’s a gap in the market.
Lots of medical schools may have formal academic mentoring programmes, especially in the run-up to exams. These can be small group practical sessions or delivered via a lecture format, so make sure you check out the details of these programmes and sign up for any you think would be useful. On these programmes, if you get on well with your mentor, try to stay in touch with them after the programme ends, as they are often senior students or junior doctors, and can be valuable supportive relationships to maintain.
Increasingly, too, peer support can be accessed through social media. Twitter has a huge cohort of medical students who can provide support and advice internationally. It’s also a great platform to interact with seniors and experts, as it’s a lot less formal than sending an email. You can follow Medics.Academy at @MedicsAcademy.
The better (and earlier) you prepare yourself for your finals, the SJT, the PSA and FPAS applications, the less stress you will need to endure when it comes around. The same goes for all the other stresses we face as healthcare workers.
So nurture your peer support networks in the same way you nurture your academic learning – you never know when you will most need them. And to all those who provide peer support – formally or informally.
About the Author
Anna Harvey is a final year medical student and Medics.Academy Fellow. She is interested in women’s health, education and journalism. You can find her tweeting about writing, music and running at @a_c_harvey