What does medical practice mean to students entering undergraduate medical education? What do these students see as central to the work of a medical doctor? What do they regard as difficult challenges they are likely to face in medical practice? What implications do their perspectives on these questions have for medical education?In the qualitative research study reported in this article, students beginning undergraduate medical education characterised medical practice in a variety of ways. In brief, they characterised medical practice as: (a) helping or saving; (b) diagnosing or treating using required procedures; (c) locating the problem and informing the patient; (d) while diagnosing and treating, interacting in a supportive way; (e) seeking a way forward together; or (f) enabling the patient to better deal with his or her life situation. Some differences based on gender and method of admission to medical education are noted.Implications for medical education include the need to address: variation in characterising medical practice; ways in which medical knowledge and medical care are viewed; non-biomedical aspects as mainstream in the medical curriculum; concerns about difficult human encounters in medical practice; and development of professional identity.