5 Ways To Overcome Failure in medicine

Like most persons who study medicine, I was not used to failing, I was used to being good at everything I did and achieving high marks. The first thing I ever failed was my driving test, since then I’ve failed multiple times.

While during my studies, I passed all my examinations on the first go, when I became a doctor almost everyday I made some mistake that felt like the end of the world. It’s been over a year since I have been practicing medicine and everyday I realise I have so much more to learn.

At first, it was hard, then it got easier and easier. Eventually, I looked at my blunders as what they truly were- learning experiences. Medicine in a practice and an apprenticeship, we learn and apply theoretic knowledge as we go along. Each medical doctor has a different way that they practice, moulded by their personal experience and medical evidence. This is why, medicine is almost always practiced under the supervision of someone more senior to you- and if you’re the most senior person, you’re still encouraged to discuss with others at your level.

Failure sounds like an overly harsh way to describe making mistakes- but that’s what it often feels like. When you forget a step in the management of an illness and your senior corrects you, or when you can’t answer a question but when you hear the answer you realise how simple it was, or you simply didn’t pickup on something that seems so obvious… all of these things feel like failing. Maybe it has to do with the pressure of being a doctor and the expectation that you should know and remember everything all the time..

Please note that this article will not be addressing medical negligence, but rather the instances when you discuss your patient or the management of a patient and your senior or colleague points out or adds something that you feel as though you should have known or remembered at that time. Or when you have all the puzzle pieces, but can’t seem to put the puzzle together- you know when it’s staring you right in the face and for some reason you can’t see it!

If you’re like me, and everyday you’re humbled by medicine and how much more you’re left to learn, here are some tips with dealing with what can be one of the most soul crushing feelings!

For When You Fail:

Don’t Internalise It- Reflect

It is so easy to mull over a mistake and beat yourself up about it. I still remember random blunders I made months or years ago. How could I not know the answer to that question? Why wasn’t I confident to say my answer when asked? It’s not easy to not internalise and have it affect your confidence; however, it is much more useful to reflect on what happened, how it made you feel and how you can learn from it.

Accept Criticism Gracefully

No one likes criticism, but it is a useful part of practicing medicine. Good critiques from good people can help you ten fold in the long run. When you talk to many doctors, they each have a story of another doctor who changed the way how they practiced.

Try Again

The next time the situation comes up, you’ll be better at it. After you have been corrected that’s the best time to solidify the information and try again.

For Correcting Failures Of Your Colleagues/ Juniours:

Watch your tone

Messing up is never easy, but we have all been there. Correcting persons should never be done harshly. Shouting is a no no, along with being condescending. Mistakes are a great learning AND teaching opportunity.

Let it go

There is no need to constantly remind someone of a mistake they’ve done… it serves absolutely no purpose and ruins rapport. This is even more unnecessary if the person has learnt and improved after making the mistake.

Don’t be too hard on yourself.

Samantha C. Johnson


Samantha C. Johnson The Layman’s Doctor: Bringing Medicine Home with articles, podcasts and videos all aimed at making medicine more accessible to all.

Samantha C. Johnson The Layman’s Doctor: Bringing Medicine Home with articles, podcasts and videos all aimed at making medicine more accessible to all.



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