The Art of Triage in Medical School


About a week ago I took the Advanced Trauma Life Support course (ATLS). Within the course was a short discussion on triage.  In medicine triage is the act of deciding which patients should be treated first to make the most out of available resources. While typically thought of as a system applied in mass casualty scenarios and the emergency department, the using the art of triage in medical school is crucially important as well.

Black Cards – Will die from injuries regardless of intervention

Believe it or not, I often intentionally don’t study for whole sections of tests. Things that I KNOW will be on there. I know, I know, there are some antsy premeds reading this and having anxiety attacks.Think about it. Is it the best use of your time to spend another hour memorizing that super complicated equation that just won’t stick in your head?

Absolutely fucking not!

Not only is it mindnumbingly boring but let’s be honest, you are just going to end up looking it up on in real life. You’re better served solidifying the topics you DO have a handle on and making sure you rock those sections. When you get to a question involving the super-complicated-equation, smile, say “you got me”, choose C, and move on.

YOU WILL NOT LIKE THIS AT FIRST! We are medical students, we know and do it all. Roar! Sometimes things just aren’t gonna happen and it is a liberating feeling to recognize and accept that. The art is to do this quickly and move on! Apply this to the rest of medical school as well (Club taking up too much time? Sayonara* bitch!) and you will find you are soon living a much more efficient, streamlined life.

Red Cards – Immediate, life-saving intervention required

red cardThese are the increased sphincter tone situations. Shit is on the line but you actually have the time and ability to do something about it. For me, “red card” situations often revolved around intense, last-minute study sessions (others would not so eloquently refer to this as “cramming”). These are EMERGENCIES that you must drop EVERYTHING else to deal with!

I’m sure I don’t need to teach any of you how to cram. What I DO want to point out is that cramming just leads to more cramming, especially in medical school. Unlike undergraduate, there are no breaks to give you time to catch back up. Not only is this a hazard for your blood pressure but your performance will suffer as well. You’ll soon turn into one of those frazzled looking kids that sits in the front-row with their hair going 18 different directions frantically scribbling down notes.

Yellow Cards – Stable but will require assistance

My friends, this is where you want to live. Slowly moving through tasks. Completing things with a steady rhythm with time to spare. You are the tortoise and you are loving it! How can you accomplish this?

It only requires a single bullet point:

  • Stay on top of your shit!

Think of it like surfing a wave. It’s a lot easier if you get out in front of it. If you get a little behind it’s going to require some hard work to catch up. If you let that wave wash over you you are fucked. It requires persistence and tenaciousness to stay in front of that wave!

dolphin wave

You too can be a frolicking dolphin like Survivor DO!

I know, easier said than done. Lately I have experienced this personally as I have been spending a significant amount of time in the “red zone”. True to the art of triage, I have had to drop everything else and Surviving Gray’s has suffered because of it. Hopefully I am back in the yellow zone now and can start making regular contributions once again!

*a special thanks to Google for helping me spell that!


The Art of Triage in Medical School — 143 Comments

  1. hehe so so true!!! have 2 finals left tomorrow and I’ll be done w/ my very first term in med school!!!! the worse thing you can do is to procrastinate so yes, stay on top of your shit!!!! all the time!!!!!! i love ur posts…hope all is well w/ u!!!

    • Thanks! It really is one of those delightfully simple concepts that is almost entirely impossible to master! I for one can’t get shit done without deadlines so sometimes I end up procrastinating big time and I have to remind myself how much it sucks to be constantly putting out fires!

      All is well. Busy busy!


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