"A steep learning curve": junior doctor perspectives on the transition from medical student to the health-care workplace

BMC Med Educ. 2017 May 26;17(1):92. doi: 10.1186/s12909-017-0931-2.


Background: The transition from medical student to hospital-based first year junior doctor (termed "intern" in Australia) is known to be challenging, and recent changes in clinical learning environments may reduce graduate preparedness for the intern workplace. Although manageable challenges and transitions are a stimulus to learning, levels of burnout in junior medical colleagues are concerning. In order to prepare and support medical graduates, educators need to understand contemporary junior doctor perspectives on this transition.

Methods: Final-year University of Queensland medical students recruited junior doctors working in diverse hospital settings, and videorecorded individual semi-structured interviews about their transition from medical student to working as a junior doctor. Two clinical academics (NS and JT) and an intern (ZT) independently conducted a descriptive analysis of interview transcripts, and identified preliminary emerging concepts and themes, before reaching agreement by consensus on the major overarching themes.

Results: Three key themes emerged from the analysis of 15 interviews: internship as a "steep learning curve"; relationships and team; and seeking help. Participants described the intern transition as physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting. They learned to manage long days, administrative and clinical tasks, frequent interruptions and time pressures; identify priorities; deal with criticism without compromising key relationships; communicate succinctly; understand team roles (including their own status within hospital hierarchies); and negotiate conflict. Participants reported a drop in self-confidence, and difficulty maintaining self-care and social relationships. Although participants emphasised the importance of escalating concerns and seeking help to manage patients, they appeared more reluctant to seek help for personal issues and reported a number of barriers to doing so.

Conclusion: Findings may assist educators in refining their intern preparation and intern training curricula, and ensuring that medical school and intern preparation priorities are not seen as competing. Insights from non-medical disciplines into the organisational and relational challenges facing junior doctors and their health-care teams may enhance inter-professional learning opportunities. Workplace support and teaching, especially from junior colleagues, is highly valued during the demanding intern transition.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Learning Curve*
  • Male
  • Medical Staff, Hospital / psychology*
  • Qualitative Research
  • Queensland
  • Students, Medical / psychology*
  • Workplace*
  • Young Adult