Making the Leap from Nursing to Medicine: Part 1

Making the Leap from Nursing to Medicine

Nursing is a trusted, respected, and valued profession in our society. Each day, nurses save countless lives in the Canadian healthcare system with their personalized care, attention to detail, and holistic patient knowledge. As well, nursing can easily serve as a lifelong vocation, offering rewarding learning opportunities and meaningful work to individuals for decades. There is no doubt that the work nurses do is incredibly important, and that nursing is an occupation enjoyed by many! 

However, nursing is not the same profession as medicine. The two healthcare careers are intertwined in many ways, often working in the same settings, with overlapping scopes, and collaborative intent. Yet, at the end of the day medicine and nursing remain distinct from one another. For instance, nurses spend much more time at the bedside building rapport with their patients, and the physician role has strength in leading decision making and treatment plans. This does not make one role better than the other, as each have their various ups and downs, but this example just reinforces the two positions are different. And it is in learning of this distinction that some nurses, myself included, may seek to alter their career paths and pursue medicine (and of course vice versa occurs too!). 

For myself, the decision to leave nursing to pursue medicine was not taken lightly. I truly agonized over if medicine was the right step for me, and if I was indeed suited for medicine. I can best describe making the choice to purse medicine as taking a leap, as I was comfortable and had found a place of my own in nursing. Further, challenges posed by starting and completing the training path of medicine seemed very large to me (and to be honest, they do seem still quite large!). Ultimately, I did end up making that leap this past year, and it still feels a bit like free falling at times, but it is the promise of the differences between nursing and medicine that continue to draw a me forward. 

In this blog, I hope to pass on my own tips and strategies for those in nursing also contemplating a leap to medicine. Although the jump is different for each nurse, I feel what I have learned can still be applicable in calculating the benefits and risks of such a move for another. Especially for a training path as long and arduous as medicine, you have to be certain it is right!

Observe Medicine while on Shift

With long shifts often placing nurses beside physicians, nurses can be well situated to examine and ask questions about the practice of medicine. If there was downtime in my shifts, I would often take the chance to ask the physicians I worked with about their educational experiences, perceptions of medicine, and overall job satisfaction.  Residents could be even more insightful, as their training was so recent and they were eager to share. Likewise, I have found nursing allows close observation of the physician role in terms of clinical skills, assessment, prescribing, administrational duties, and leadership capabilities. Therefore, if you are a nurse considering medicine than I encourage you to take the time to consciously examine what the physicians in your workplace are doing on a day-to-day basis. Then consider if those tasks interest, intimidate, or bore you. 

‘Change Up’ Nursing Specialties

It can be difficult to know, because the breadth of nursing specialties is so broad, if any dissatisfaction with a nursing role stems from the profession itself or the specialty. As a nurse, one must ask themselves if they have been in one specialty for a long time? As a result, does this specialty no longer challenge or interest? And if so, is there another speciality of interest to explore?  Certainly, I worried this was my situation when I first started considering medicine. Healthcare is such a large world, which in turn makes it hard to know if it is just the patient setting that is driving a desire for change or the actual occupation. As such, I switched from emergency to obstetrics to intensive care, and I found I liked the workplaces most that let me operate on an extended scope of practice (ie. broad medical directives and higher rates of physician skill delegation). Eventually, I was able to interpret this joy as a sign that medicine was right for me. Regardless of the speciality, I constantly sought to have a greater voice in the clinical management for patients and provide care at a higher level.

Explore Opportunities in Nursing Leadership

Like the aforementioned advice, exploring leadership opportunities in nursing may be a part of deciding if nursing is truly the profession for you (aka. Ruling it out!). This step may not be needed for everyone who wants to make the leap from nursing to medicine, but it was an important step in my journey as I wanted to ensure that I could handle the responsibility that came with a leadership role in healthcare. Thus, I briefly took on a role as a unit manager for an acute care hospital (20-bed Intensive Care Unit). I quickly learned that I was challenged in the role not just due the demands of leadership, but the absence of patient care. I felt I was too far from the bedside, and didn’t enjoy the work that came along with enforcing union contracts, scheduling staff, and overseeing payroll. This is not to say staffing and budgets are not important, as they very much are so, but the stark contrast of the two roles hit me everytime I saw the medical team walk by on rounds. In hindsight, I can say this experience was the most invaluable in my personal journey to choose medicine because by taking a step away from medicine (and the bedside) I realized how much I loved it!

Try Nursing Continuing Education

If you are a nurse that has concerns about the challenges of being a medical student and returning to formal studies, investigate continuing education opportunities for nurses. Whether it is a week-long course, a specialty certificate, or a master degree, taking advantage of continuing nursing education may be a good indicator if you want to spend even more time in school. Ask yourself if you enjoy learning about nursing and healthcare at a more in-depth level? Do you mind reviewing the latest research, health policies, and associated scientific principles? Committing to a small course and finding out more schooling isn’t for you is a lot easier than pursuing medicine applications for years before making that realization. Some workplaces even pay for continuing educations for nursing staff, which again makes the process low risk to explore. Finally, pursing nursing continuing education could be another good way to explore emerging careers in healthcare, and rule out even more job opportunities (a.k.a. Nurse Practitioner, Perfusionist, First Assist, Clinical Educator or Clinical Nurse Specialist).

Consider Medical School Application Requirements

When you are all but certain that medicine is the correct path for you sit down and examine what it will take to become accepted to medical school. I laid out a detailed list of each Canadian school’s admission requirements and began researching what these requirements meant to me. Getting accepted into a Canadian medical school is no small feat and understanding what commitments will be necessary to earn a coveted welcome letter to medical training is crucial in choosing medicine. Even after many years of nursing service, it may take many more years to enter medicine. Obtaining traditional prerequisites (not always provided by a nursing degree), studying and taking the MCAT, and planning adequate extracurriculars all need to be a part of your plan. Personally, I took time off to study for the MCAT, to do my best, and it took a lot of planning before I even approached my employer with a plan for a short-term leave of absence. Take it from me, be honest with yourself upfront about what you need to do to make medicine work! The challenges and unavoidable self-doubt will come as less of a shock later if you do.

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