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Med Student, Intern, Resident, Attending Physician – What’s the difference?

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As we all know, our UHP doctors are not only medical practitioners; they are also educators. They don’t just care for patients; they teach others how to care for patients, passing on their skills and knowledge to those on the path to becoming physicians.  That path has several distinct stages reflected in the titles  of the providers who treat patients in clinics and hospitals.

Before being treated by our physicians, our patients are asked if they would consent to having a resident, intern or student involved in their care.  Would you know how to give an informed answer to that question? Do you know the differences between a student, intern, resident, attending physician, and consulting physician?  Many of us do not.  Here’s some information to help clear up the confusion.

Most students who have been admitted to medical school have very successfully earned their bachelor’s degrees and have demonstrated that they are ready to embark on the challenging journey to becoming a Doctor of Medicine (MD).   The medical students who assist physicians in a clinical facility are generally in their third or fourth year of medical school. Patients might encounter these students in every phase of their medical care. Upon graduating from medical school, these new doctors will have several more years of internship and residency training to complete before they will be practicing independently.

At this point, the new doctor enters the first year of post-medical school training known as intern year. Interns are doctors, but they may only practice medicine under the guidance and supervision provided in their training programs. They may not treat patients unsupervised and traditionally wear short white coats to signify their status as interns.  In many programs, interns are also called first-year residents.

When the internship year has been completed, interns enter residency. Though they have earned their M.D. degrees and may practice independently as general practitioners, the overwhelming majority of doctors at this level pursue further training as residents.  Depending upon the specialty that the physician has chosen, a residency may last from two to seven years.  All residents are supervised by senior physicians.

In a medical facility, the physician who has the major responsibility for a patient’s care is called the attending physician.  Attending physicians have completed their training and often play an active role in the education of medical students, interns, and residents. In addition, they typically have their own practice in their specialty. There are also consulting physicians who may see you and provide consultation to the attending physicians.

So why would you want to see a resident for your medical care, or have an intern or student participate in your treatment?

There are benefits to seeing a resident for medical care – benefits for the individual patient as well as benefits for our community.  Typically residents have more time to spend with their patients.  If you are skeptical about having a newly trained doctor treat you, be assured that when you are in the care of residents, you still benefit from the experience of the attending physicians who supervise them.  Residents are instructed by our faculty physicians in the latest innovations, technology, and approaches to medicine.  That’s why we say that UHP provides you with Tomorrow’s Healthcare Today.

And how does the community benefit from this arrangement?

Our patients contribute to the health of Hawaii by participating in the education and development of physicians in our community. With our shortage of doctors in Hawaii and elsewhere, this is indeed an important contribution.  Doctors tend to settle down where they do their residencies. By providing opportunities for newly graduated medical students to become interns and residents here in Hawaii, we are helping to ensure that we keep our doctors in the Islands where they are so badly needed.  UHP patients also help new doctors develop interpersonal skills and experience to help them develop into the competent and confident medical experts we look to when we are in need of care.

So now when you encourage your friends and family members to see our doctors, you can tell them that in doing so, they are not only getting excellent healthcare for themselves; they are also helping to keep our island home healthy.

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