In this post:
- Why do medical schools value teamwork?
- What is teamwork in medicine?
- Patients and families as team members
- Teamwork and safety
- How to show teamwork in your application
- 10 ways to show your teamwork skills
Why do medical schools value teamwork?
When the Institute of Medicine Committee on Quality of Health Care in America published its 2000 report “To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health System,” the authors attributed most medical errors to two key deficits: (1) a lack of communication and (2) dysfunctional teamwork. It appeared that the long-standing “doctor-as-captain-of-the-ship” paradigm led to such problems as physician burnout, poor relationships with nurses and staff, and arrogance toward patients’ preferences. Since the institute’s findings were published, medical leadership and training programs have been working to improve teamwork in medical practice and education.
To better understand the problem, researchers looked at studies from commercial aviation, military, firefighting, and other rapid-response professions in which human error can result in the loss of lives. They found that in high-risk settings, teams make fewer mistakes than individuals do. When teamwork exercises were done to prepare for trauma, anesthesia, and labor and delivery emergencies, hospitals saw improved patient outcomes and fewer errors.
What is teamwork in medicine?
Physicians are now expected to work together with many other professionals when caring for patients. It takes more than one set of skills to solve most medical problems, and no one person can possess all the skills and knowledge required. For example, imagine you are a physician caring for Ms. W., a 35-year-old patient admitted six days earlier for a pulmonary embolism. During her stay, you discover she has a clotting disorder and must remain on anticoagulants for the rest of her life. However, she is uninsured and cannot afford the medication you prescribed. You also learn that the hospital wants you to send her home tomorrow. She is ready for discharge from a medical standpoint, but you are not sure how she will fare on her own.
Luckily, on the second day of Ms. W.’s admission, her nurse called social services, who helped her apply to a program that covers the cost of her medications. They also arranged for free home health visits during the first week after discharge to reduce the possibility that she will return to the emergency room. When your PA was rounding, she realized that Ms. W. has prediabetes, so a nutrition consult was called. The nutritionist discovered that Ms. W. is depressed and craving junk food because her favorite pastime, playing rugby, is now off-limits because of the blood thinners she takes. The nutritionist shared this information with the care coordinator, who arranged for Ms. W. to see an occupational therapist who could teach her safer ways to exercise. After a baseline mental and emotional health assessment, the discharge team arranged for Ms. W. to receive outpatient therapy to help her cope with her new health condition and limitations.
As a physician, there is no chance you could have accomplished all this on your own. It took at least eight healthcare professionals, in addition to other hospital support staff, to make this patient’s discharge go smoothly.
Patients and families as team members
Clearly, physicians today rely on the input and expertise of many individuals to plan and coordinate post-hospital care. But perhaps the biggest change to the healthcare team is recognizing that the patient and their family are also vital team members. The patient needs to feel comfortable voicing their concerns and questions and making changes in their treatment plan, if needed. The patient’s family might be enlisted to perform wound care or other essential tasks, and can be educated on how to recognize a complication or side effect. Without their buy-in, treatments are often ineffective. As doctors, we can’t go home with our patients to make sure they are okay, but their families can.
Teamwork and safety
In the past, medical training programs placed a low value on physician rest and wellness. The old attitude was that a dedicated physician could go for days without sleep. However, our increased awareness of the role that fatigue plays in medical error has led to improved safety laws. These days, med students and residents are required to leave the hospital and rest, while failures of programs to enforce these requirements can result in severe penalties. These changes require programs to focus on improved patient handoffs and team communication.
While patients might be concerned about their physician being unavailable, studies have shown that shared responsibility for patient care leads to greater satisfaction among nurses and other team members, as well as better patient outcomes. With a strong team in place, patients soon discover that someone will always be there and that their physician will be well rested and able to handle whatever challenges arise.
Medical school curricula now include dedicated teamwork training. Students and residents are taught how to effectively sign out patients to colleagues when they leave the hospital. Skills such as collaboration, overcoming conflict, prioritizing, and recognizing others’ strengths are explicitly taught and assessed. Students and residents practice code situations so that all team members know their role and can perform in high-stress situations. Med schools not only teach these effective teamwork traits, but they also screen for them at admission. The first place they look for the qualities needed for collaboration is in the teamwork essay.
How to show teamwork in your application
If you are asked to write an essay about teamwork, first identify an experience when you worked with others (ideally within the past two years). Potential teamwork situations include volunteering, teaching, athletics, research, group projects in school, jobs in retail or the service industry, or other employment settings where working well with others is a key part of success. Passive situations such as shadowing, where you are not directly contributing, are not ideal for this essay.
If your team experienced conflict, describe how you overcame it, making sure to attribute the problem to shared communication issues rather than blaming an individual. If things went well, describe your channels of communication and how you shared in the decision-making. You might also mention people who were not directly on your team but who contributed to a successful outcome. In a work setting, were your customers part of your team? If you were teaching, did your students play a role in their learning? In a research project, did you get help from support staff? Be sure to show your awareness of your teammates’ different strengths and inputs. Medical schools seek people who recognize that the work of a team is better than that of a single individual. Show that you have that perspective.
The essay is only one way that schools identify your teamwork strengths. Admissions committees also look for evidence of teamwork in your activities, interview, and letters of recommendation. They will try to evaluate your ability to be flexible, to recognize and admit when you don’t know something, and to work well with others.
Schools ultimately want medical students who are able to not only excel in their academics but also work toward a common goal without letting their ego get in the way. Above all, they want people who are comfortable working on a diverse team with a variety of strengths and skill sets. Only through teamwork can we give patients all the resources they need to regain or maintain their health.
Ten ways to assess your teamwork skills
If you can answer “yes” to the following ten questions, you’re well on your way to having the teamwork skills medical schools want to see.
- Do you value the contribution of all team members?
- Are you flexible and willing to change direction when needed?
- Do you listen to and accept constructive criticism?
- Do you avoid blaming others and instead look to systems issues when there is conflict?
- Do you share credit with others generously?
- Are you comfortable in both leadership and non-leadership roles?
- Do you see the strengths of others as complementary to your own?
- Are you open to further developing your teamwork skills?
- Do you believe teams accomplish more than individuals?
- Is respect for others a part of your personal value system?
If you need help showcasing these skills in your medical school personal statement, activities, secondaries, and interviews, consider working with one of our expert Medical School Admissions Consultants. We’d be delighted to help you.
Since 2001, Cydney Foote has advised hundreds of successful applicants for medical and dental education, residency and fellowship training, and other health-related degrees. Admissions consulting combines her many years of creating marketing content with five years on fellowship and research selection committees at the University of Washington School of Medicine. She’s also shared her strategy for impressing interviewers in a popular webinar and written three books and numerous articles on the admissions process. Want Cydney to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!
- Four Tips for Highlighting Your Strengths in Your Application Essays
- The Importance of Teaching Management in Medical School, a podcast Episode 232
- Casper, A Situational Judgment Test: All You Need to Know, a podcast Episode 513