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Why Do We Have Residency Training?

By BRYAN CARMODY, MD

Surely every resident has had the experience of trying to explain to a patient or family what, exactly, a resident is. “Yes, I’m a real doctor… I just can’t do real doctor things by myself.”

In many ways, it’s a strange system we have. How come you can call yourself a doctor after medical school, but you can’t actually work as a physician until after residency? How – and why – did this system get started?

These are fundamental questions – and as we answer them, it will become apparent why some problems in the medical school-to-residency transition have been so difficult to fix.

In the beginning…

Go back to the 18th or 19th century, and medical training in the United States looked very different. Medical school graduates were not required to complete a residency – and in fact, most didn’t. The average doctor just picked up his diploma one day, and started his practice the next.

But that’s because the average doctor was a generalist. He made house calls and took care of patients in the community. In the parlance of the day, the average doctor was undistinguished. A physician who wanted to distinguish himself as being elite typically obtained some postdoctoral education abroad in Paris, Edinburgh, Vienna, or Germany.

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