Why Emergency Medicine? A medical student’s reflection

why emergency medicine - nada radulovic - canada

As the Canadian Resident Matching Service (CaRMS) application cycle approaches for the Class of 2020 in Canada, I have been reflecting on the common question of “Why Emergency Medicine (EM)?” This has encouraged me to consider all aspects of the specialty that I love, as well as some of the perceived challenges of pursuing EM residency training. Additionally, I have been asked about advice for medical students interested in exploring EM, mainly from those beginning medical school or clerkship this month. So, in an attempt at a personal reflection exercise, I am also hoping to provide some practical points for consideration for any medical student thinking about exploring this wonderful specialty.

Some of the reasons why I love Emergency Medicine:



From the clinical presentations and various procedures, to the patients and team members working in the emergency department, I am constantly drawn to the multifaceted and dynamic nature of EM. Speaking to well-seasoned staff physicians, this versatility has them constantly learning and encountering new things. During my first EM shift of clerkship, the first patient of the day came in with atrial fibrillation, the second was hypothermic and without vital signs, the third had lower back pain, and the fourth presented with a COPD exacerbation. The range in presentations and levels of acuity are something that greatly appeal to me and allow for constant growth in Medicine. This diversity provides endless opportunities to learn new things in the setting of, at times, very limited information and time.



Opportunities for subspecialization

EM offers several formal opportunities to find your niche within the specialty, in the form of fellowships. These areas include ultrasound, trauma, resuscitation and reanimation, critical care, toxicology, pediatric EM, disaster medicine, and medical education. This is not an exhaustive list and will vary depending on where you are training. The Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians has developed an accessible directory for enhanced competencies: https://caep.ca/em-community/resident-section/enhanced-competency-directory/




One long-standing interest of mine throughout my post-secondary education has been Population and Global Health. Therefore, something that I really appreciate about EM is its portability. EM is present in an array of settings, from rural to large academic centers. This flexibility allows you to tailor your practice to your interests, both within and outside of Medicine. In a recent post by one of iEM’s blog authors, Dr. Ibrahim Sarbay, 82 countries were identified as recognizing EM as a primary specialty. See “Countries Recognize Emergency Medicine as a Specialty” for a breakdown of countries: https://iem-student.org/2019/05/13/countries-recognize-emergency-medicine/)



Working with vulnerable populations

This is something that continues to draw me to EM, as the emergency department serves as an entry point into the healthcare system for some individuals. Throughout my rotations, I have been privileged to work with various patients, and have found myself constantly inspired from learning about their unique challenges within the healthcare system, as well as the various interventions that have been developed to target social determinants of health at institutional and systemic levels. While there is considerable work that still needs to be done to address these disparities, I continue being fascinated with the various advancements that are underway. This has additionally expanded my understanding of humanity and has forced me to reflect on how I approach clinical interactions. Overall, it has allowed for considerable growth within Medicine and on a personal level. This continues to be one of the aspects of EM that I truly value most. 

Vulnerable Populations

Perceived challenges

I need to preface this by saying that it may be difficult to truly appreciate challenges of any specialty from solely experiencing it through the role of a medical student. However, these are points that I consider challenges of EM-based on my personal experiences during several EM rotations, as well as through discussion with residents and staff physicians.


Physician burnout

A recent study in JAMA by Dyrbye et al. (2018) surveyed second-year resident physicians in the United States. Their findings indicated a burnout prevalence (based on the Maslach Burnout Inventory) of 53.8% of surveyed EM residents. While EM did not exhibit the highest burnout rate (Urology, 63.8%; Neurology, 61.6%; Ophthalmology, 55.8%), it was on the higher end for specialties that were assessed. [1] The topics of burnout and wellness promotion have become fairly pronounced in the EM community. EM Cases released an episode in 2017 regarding burnout prevention and wellness during EM training, that featured Dr. Sara Gray and Chris Trevelyan. Link: https://emergencymedicinecases.com/preventing-burnout-promoting-wellness-emergency-medicine/


Practicing “fishbowl medicine”

I have heard this term thrown around quite a bit, alluding to the fact that specialties are observing the way that EM physicians are managing patients. The fishbowl effect reflects the tendency of a specialist in other disciplines to compare the actions of EM physicians to the standards of practice that are held in the setting of those specialists (e.g., the operating room, the specialty clinics, etc.). [2] While I recognize that this can occasionally cause conflict between groups, I personally love the multidisciplinary nature of EM and view the collaborative efforts with other specialties as further opportunities for growth regarding my understanding of various disease processes and overall management of patients. Dr. Sheldon Jacobson published an interesting reflection of how this concept can actually be viewed positively within the practice of EM [2]. 


Everyone has personal reasons for pursuing any specialty, and for many, the reasons for pursuing EM run deeper than those listed above. However, these are just some of the factors that I believe to be basic and practical considerations for this specialty. EM makes me excited to expand upon my knowledge base in Medicine, to constantly learn and better my understanding of the human condition, and to be a part of the supportive environment that multidisciplinary EM teams create. It is an ever-expanding field and I hope to one day be able to contribute to it in a meaningful way. I could go on and on about why I love the specialty, well beyond the limits of a blog post – I may be a little biased, but EM is pretty great!

References and Further Reading

  1. Dyrbye LN, Burke SE, Hardeman RR et al. Association of Clinical Specialty with Symptoms of Burnout and Career Choice Regret Among US Resident Physicians. JAMA. 2018 Sep;320(11):1114-1130.
  2. Jacobson S. The Fishbowl Effect. Acad Emerg Med, 2015 Oct;12(10):956-957.

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Cite this article as: Nada Radulovic, Canada, "Why Emergency Medicine? A medical student’s reflection," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, August 30, 2019, https://iem-student.org/2019/08/30/why-emergency-medicine-a-medical-students-reflection/, date accessed: December 5, 2023

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