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Remote working for medical students and doctors

Updated: Dec 13, 2020

5 tips to press the right buttons

If I could sum up 2020 (with a PG rating) it would be “disruption”.

Almost every facet of life has been affected but thankfully, plucky and resourceful are we in medicine. We have seen huge strides in distanced learning technology and, as I argued in a piece for The Cambridge Medicine Journal, this may actually facilitate the transition to a more technologically savvy NHS.

I’ve had more experience with remote work than most medical students: I worked for a company remotely during my gap year (including numerous Zoom meetings) and also returned to fifth year of medicine at Cambridge with a full week of remote lectures.

So, whether you’re starting your final year or just taking your first steps as a fresher, I’d like to offer five tips for maximising productivity and minimising the negative health impacts when it comes to remote lectures and learning.

Tip 1: Keep your routine

If you were to survey junior doctors for what they’d like for Christmas, I’m sure “time” would be top of that list. Remote lectures mean there is no need to wake up extra early and the stress of travelling, weather and delays is no longer an issue.

However, the common response to this is to stay in bed, only to groggily wake up with three minutes to go and log into your laptop from bed. Don’t get me wrong, some days this is necessary and I’m not saying to wake up as early as you would have done.

However, if you can wake up at least half an hour before you start, that will be extra time in your day that you otherwise wouldn’t get. You could spend this on anything: meditation, meal prep, a passion project, a workout, or even just setting your targets for the day and getting yourself mentally and physically prepared for a day of work.

Agree a time to wake up and stick to this everyday (even the weekends!) if you can, and you’ll develop a solid routine. You’ll thank me when placement rolls around and, suddenly, being in your PJs at 8:53am is no longer an option.

Tip 2: Maintain a good work environment

This is an opportunity to get creative and build your perfect work den. Ensure a tidy workspace with some natural light, all of the equipment you’ll need and minimal distractions. During your remote lectures there will be some points when you inevitably zone out. If you have something on your desk (or wherever you work) that you know will distract you, remove it and save it for your breaks!

Ideally, you want to separate sleep and work (another reason for tip 1) so try and work outside of your bedroom. However, if this isn’t possible then make sure your work environment isn’t overloaded with notes and reminders, so when you’re winding down in the evening you can actually switch off.

Tip 3: Grease the joints

It can be tempting to spend hours in the same place, but ultimately you need to remember two things. Firstly, sitting for long periods of time will cause havoc with your posture (see tip 5). Secondly, having a break from the same physical space is a great way to recharge.

With that being said, if you have the luxury of several potential work areas, and maybe even a garden, then make sure to utilise these throughout the day. This is especially useful if you start to feel fatigued, as simply changing where you work can refresh your concentration. This is vital for medicine where the subject matter at 4:30pm can be as cognitively demanding as that in the morning.

Tip 4: Protect your eyes

Spending hours staring at screens is what future historians will call “the 2010 era”, but if you’re learning medicine through online lectures, it’s somewhat unavoidable. However, eye strain, headaches and weakened vision are not.

Most devices have a built-in blue light filter and there are plenty of free apps that can do the same job. Another trick is to reduce your laptop brightness during the day in a gradual fashion- think The Twits but instead of a walking stick, it’s the grainy image of your Dean trying to relate to you.

Tip 5: Sit happens

The effects of sitting on overall posture are well-researched and I can personally attest to the resulting concertina spine and posterior pelvic tilt. There are three main ways to avoid this:

Pro-active: Avoid sitting! Either use a standing desk or something similar (e.g., a kitchen counter)

Active: Avoid prolonged sitting, by setting timers for yourself to regularly walk around (see tip 3), stretch and limber up.

Reactive: Incorporate posture exercises into your daily routine. These don’t have to be long or intense, as long as you are stretching your hip flexors, mobilising your thoracic spine and strengthening your glutes and back muscles. Treat it as anatomy revision if you like!

Final thoughts

These tips have been distilled from my personal experience and I hope they will provide practical action points for you. For many students, working from home has significant benefits and these can be amplified if you are cautious about the potential pitfalls. To aid this, I have taken the liberty of creating a little checklist graphic for you to print off and keep at your work station.

Above all else, remember to look after yourself and reframe this as practice for the future, when remote consultations and telemedicine may revolutionise the way patient care is delivered.

I guess disruption isn’t always bad.


Author: Hardeep Lotay

I’m a Cambridge medical student with an interest in medical communication and education. In particular, I enjoy creating content for students, patients and professionals that addresses lifestyle education and general wellness; nutrition, exercise, sleep, stress and mental health. I hope to contribute to a pro-active healthcare model that embraces personalised healthcare and telemedicine.

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