The ‘Darkest Time’ in Med School—Prepping for Your Third Year Clinical Rotations

Find out how emotions affect the practice of medicine to know why the third year is often referred to as the “darkest” year of med school.

Just a few years ago, you could sum up a medical education quite simply as two years in the classroom (i.e., learning the basic sciences) and two years making rounds (i.e., your clinical clerkships.)

But now leading medical schools, including Saba University School of Medicine, have overhauled their curriculums to better integrate the clinical side much earlier.

There are many reasons for this change, but one often overlooked aspect is the realization that making such a stark transition from classroom to clinicals in the third year wasn’t healthy for anyone—not the students themselves and not their patients.

According to Danielle Ofri, a medical school professor and author of the book What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine, the “ice-water plunge” into primal clinical experiences produces a welter of emotions, not all of them positive. Coming to grips with the messy realities of disease and death, observing egos and medical hierarchies, witnessing fear, anger, grief, humiliation in patients and doctors alike—and going through all of this for six-weeks, before being whisked off to start over again in other rotation—these are all reasons why the third year is often referred to as the “darkest” year of med school.

Ofri points to studies that document the decline of empathy and moral reasoning in medical trainees during the third year—emotions that can profoundly affect what kind of doctors these students become and the quality of medical care they can give to their patients.

On a positive note, she points to the growing recognition of this challenge as schools such as Saba reorient their clinical curriculums, introducing greater clinical exposure well before the third year and implementing more hands-on mentorship.

For more about Dr. Ofri’s observations, see her article The Darkest Year of Medical School.

For more about Saba’s clinical program, including interviews with deans and students, go to

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