Department of Medicine Publications

'It's a Cultural Expectation...' The Pressure on Medical Trainees to Work Independently in Clinical Practice

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Medical Education





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CONTEXT: Medical trainees demonstrate a reluctance to ask for help unless they believe it is absolutely necessary, a situation which could impact on the safety of patients. This study aimed to develop a theoretical exploration of the pressure on medical trainees to be independent and to generate theory-based approaches to the implications for patient safety of this pressure towards independent working.

METHODS: In Phase 1, 88 teaching team members from internal and emergency medicine were observed during clinical activities (216 hours), and 65 participants completed brief interviews. In Phase 2, 36 in-depth interviews were conducted using video vignettes. Data collection and analysis employed grounded theory methodology.

RESULTS: Participants conceived that the pressure towards independence in clinical work originated in trainees' desire to lay claim to the identity of a doctor (as a member of a group of autonomous high achievers), and in organisational issues such as heavy workloads and constant evaluations.

DISCUSSION: The identity and organisational issues related to the pressure towards independence were explored through the lenses of established theories from education and psychology. Consideration of Lave and Wenger's situated learning theory suggests that giving attention to the 'independent doctor' ideal, through measures such as involving trainees when their supervisors ask for help, could impact the safety of teaching team practice. Amalberti et al.'s migration model explains how pressures to maximise productivity and individual gain may cause teaching teams to migrate beyond the boundaries of safe practice and suggests that managing triggers (such as workload and high-stakes evaluations) for violations of safe practice might improve safety. Implementation and evaluation of these theory-based approaches to the safety of teaching team practice would contribute to a better understanding of the links between trainee independence and patient safety.


Dr. Lorelei Lingard is currently a faculty member at The University of Western Ontario.

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