Making the most out of your time in theatre

Attending theatre for the first time is an exciting experience. The operating room is a fantastic learning environment where you can consolidate your clinical and anatomical knowledge.

Unfortunately, theatre time is extremely limited in medical school, so it’s important to make the most out of it. Drawing from my experience in surgical rotations, I made a list of tips to enhance your learning.

Before surgery

Get to know the patient

Attending a theatre session is not only about observing the surgery, it’s also about seeing the patient’s journey from their arrival at the hospital to their recovery.

Make sure to check the theatre list the day before and see if the patient has already been admitted to the ward. If they have, try to take a history and do a relevant examination. Ask how the patient was prepared for the surgery (e.g. what medication has been stopped/amended?). If possible, look up their blood results and imaging. Present the case to a ward doctor – case-based discussions will help you put your theoretical knowledge into practice.

On the day of surgery, join the team for the pre-operative ward round. Observing the consent process will help you solidify what the surgery involves as well as its risks and complications, which may come handy during your OSCEs.

Do relevant reading

If you know what surgery you will be observing, do some reading about the pathology and the procedure. Having some understanding of the principles of surgery will provide a greater perspective and consolidate your knowledge even more.

There are so many great resources out there! Touch Surgery is an app for iPads where you can “virtually” operate on a patient, whilst being guided through each step of the procedure. Complete Anatomy is great for a last-minute anatomy recap. Finally, the Teach Me Surgery website is perfect for a quick revision of common surgical presentations.

During surgery


At first, the operating theatre may seem a little bit daunting. However, those first few minutes of surgery are crucial. Observe how the patient is being prepared, how are they being positioned and why and what equipment will be needed.

Scrub in

Make sure you get involved and be enthusiastic. The team will be happy to have a keen medical student on board! Ask the operating surgeon if you can scrub in for the case. Scrubbing in will bring you closer to the operating table, allowing you to see the surgical field. You may also be asked to assist in passing the instruments or holding the retractors.

Surgical placement is also a fantastic opportunity to brush up on your suturing skills, but make sure you are appropriately trained if you are asked to do so.

Show that you are interested and willing to learn. The surgeons will be happy to answer your questions most of the time, but be mindful that the operation can be stressful at times.

After surgery

Log and reflect

After observing the surgery, it’s time to reflect. What did you learn? What anatomy do you need to brush up on?

Don’t forget to log your experience. There are a few online logbooks, such as eLogbook, that allow you to enter surgeries that you have observed or assisted. Keeping a record of all surgeries will come handy when applying for core surgical training as it will demonstrate your commitment to the specialty.

Follow-up the patient

If you have a chance, speak to the patient the next day. How do they feel? How did they find the surgery and the recovery? Patients are your most valuable learning resource, so make sure you speak to them to try understand their perspective.

About the author

Zuzanna Nowinka is a medical student at Lancaster University, with an interest in orthopaedic surgery and surgical technology.

Feel free to contact her at