Skip to content

Pimping (in Medicine): the delicate art of making someone feel small

November 30, 2009

I have been promising this post for ever!


Pimping. Pimping is a time-honoured tradition in medicine. Not exclusive to the healthcare field, this practice has been shaping young clinical clerks and residents, or their ancestors, since the time of Socrates. There are many perspectives on what pimping really is, but to me it is a simple concept. Basically, the smarter, older doctor asks you about some medical fact; usually it’s a series of questions, designed to test the bounds of your knowledge. Rarely will they ask a trainee’s opinion of something, though I’ve found universally that ER doctors do, and I thank them for it! Seeking an opinion is not an act of “pimping” but if they do so without being genuine, it can easily turn into a pimpfest.

It’s probably healthy to have one’s ego knocked-down a peg or two, especially in the “I’m going to be a doctor, ohhh yeahhhh” stage. Some attending physicians take pleasure in this, but others believe it is essential to identify knowledge gaps so that learning can begin.

It is a fine art, meant to encourage growth and to keep students on their toes. Shame-based learning is at the heart of medicine. It happens to everyone, and even if you know your stuff, you will be made to feel like an idiot; Vitum Medicinus – a senior medical student and fellow blogger – was not immune. No one is safe.

Sometimes it is straightforward fact recall. If your brain is a little fuzzy that day, or it’s been ages since you dissected a cadavre, have fear:

The worst time ever was standing in the orthopedic operating room, holding a retractor while we explored an ankle. The orthopod asked me which structures ran behind the medial malleolous (that lumpy bone on the inside of your foot). I blanked. I feebly tried “well, there’s a mnemonic for them.” He encouraged me, patronizingly. It probably took me 20 minutes before it popped back into my head: “Tom, Dick, And Not Harry.” “Uh hunh,” he said, “and what are those structures?” I paused again. Shit!

It came back to me a few minutes later. “Tibialis Posterior, Flexor Digitorum Longus, Posterior Tibial Artery, Posterior Tibial Nerve, Flexor Hallicus Longus.”

Frick. It was like pulling teeth. He was the dentist and I the poor patient with no analgesia.

More often, the question is “tell me what I’m thinking?”

  • Super Smart Old School Neurosurgeon: “Jessica, what are the three main principles of surgery?”
  • Me on my first day on a surgical rotation, happens to be in Neurosurgery of all things: Frig. “Uh…. hemostasis?”
  • Surgeon: “Yes! What else?”
  • Me: “Visualization?”
  • Surgeon: “Okay, yep, and the last?”
  • Me, growing worried: “Er, I, uh, I umh… sterile technique?”
  • Him: “No no no! It’s Anatomical Dissection” (you fool!)
  • Me (please with myself, actually): “Oh. Right.” (holy crap, I can’t believe I got two out of three right!)

Sometimes it is totally irrelevant medical history crap; history is important, and all those cells and organs and findings and whatnot are named after old dudes for a reason. However, knowing how something was discovered doesn’t often help the clinical picture. Lots of old guys still think historical pimping is important. I’ve had the history-pimp many a time.

And there are things that doctors LOVE to pimp on. They come up time and time again, so we know the answers:

It was my first ER shift as a resident. It seemed like my preceptor was a pretty nice guy, so I felt I’d ease in well. He asked me to look at an x-ray, see the patient (who he’d already assessed), and tell him the diagnosis. Okay, I’ve gotta prove myself on this challenge! I looked at the x-ray. Hmmm. Something a little funny in the mid-foot, I think. I went to see the patient, introduced myself and my purpose – to learn from her interesting foot. Ah. It’s tender where I expect.

Back to the ER doctor. “Uhm, I think it’s a Lis Franc’s. She needs to see the orthopod.”

He praised my ability to see that on the x-ray. I was surprised too, because I’m no radiologist or even ER doctor and it was probably just a fluke that I noticed it. Oh well, I feel good. I’ll take it!

“So, tell me about that fracture”

Normally, I’d be freaking out quietly inside. I don’t know a lot about fractures but somehow, I knew this. I had been ‘pimped’ before on this. “Well, blah blah blah (describing the fracture) and it was named after Napoleon’s surgeon; his soldiers kept getting these kinds of fractures because they got their feet stuck in the stirrups when they were knocked off of their horses.”

*ding ding ding!*

The most difficult for me is the “this is so easy, but is it really that easy?” pimp. I experienced that in the OR the other day. The OBGYN had a cystoscope in hand, in the middle of a Burch repair (a surgery for urinary incontinence). During this surgery, some monkeying around happens in the pelvis, and then the result of this monkeying around must be checked by looking inside the bladder:

OBGYN, pointing to what look like round ligaments connecting to the uterus: “So, which ligaments are these?”
Me: (in my head… “round ligaments! wait! no! it’s a trick!) “uhhhhhhhhh”
OBGYN: “round ligaments. okay.”
OBGYN now holding a cystoscope (camera) in the bladder: “Hmm, what’s this here?”
Me: (in my head… “I don’t see anything weird, that’s just a bubble”) “Uhhhhhh”
OBGYN: “A bubble!” (nurses laughing)
OBGYN: “okay, how about this?” (pointing out a sort of indentation in the bladder, something that isn’t normally there)
Me: (in my head, “well, it’s just sort of dented in where someone’s sponge and hand are pushing in the pelvis on the outside wall of the bladder”) “Uhh, it looks like uhhh normal, I mean, there’s nothing wrong, it’s just . . .”
OBGYN: “it’s our sponge!”

I was feeling mentally deficient even though I knew exactly what he was talking about the whole time. I just didn’t have the confidence not to second-guess myself. Usually, the pimpers are a little harder on us than this, and I suppose I was expecting the worst. Not an Obs keener, and not really meant to be in the OR during my OBS rotation (except if the perinatal unit is slow) I wasn’t that read-up on my Burch procedures or surgical gyne anatomy. It didn’t matter, since that’s wasn’t what I was being asked about. Sigh.

Developing a comprehensive strategy for handling pimping is not that important, so long as you come out knowing that the feeling of uselessness won’t last; unless you are a hardcore academic, vying for top spot in some super subspecialty, no one will even remember that you got that question wrong. Just don’t cry.

And for the pimpers, Medschool Hell has one golden rule for you: Don’t be a jerk.

There are papers in legitimate medical journals on the subject, but only three that I could find (and one letter response):

  1. The Art of Pimping by Brancati FL in JAMA. 1989;262(1):89. THE seminal paper; this paper defined it;
  2. The Art of Pimping by Detsky AS in JAMA. 2009;301(13):1379-1381. This hilariously details some strategies for “pimpees” and “pimpers” alike; I don’t think any of the listed avoidance strategies are really effective, but they might give you a laugh;
  3. Pimping: perspectives of 4th year medical students. Wear D, Kokinova M, Keck-McNulty C, and Aultman J in Teach Learn Med. 2005 Spring;17(2):184-91. These folks say that “understanding how students define and experience the pimping phenomenon prepares medical educators to scrutinize pimping as a pedagogical tool and to provide the most effective and encouraging environment for students.” Ha ha ha;
  4. A response to #3, Pimping perspectives: response to Wear. Teach Learn Med 2005 Spring;17(2):184-91. “These questions encourage students to think and not just regurgitate factoids; that is, achieving higher levels on Bloom’s taxonomy.” Not necessarily!

Have you been pimped? What was your worst experience?

19 Comments leave one →
  1. Nico permalink
    November 30, 2009 2:42 pm

    My first two years of university have been humbling in that manner, and while I can roll with it, I saw people get downright brassed off when called on like that by a prof.

    It took me about a year to figure out they do it to break some of the arrogance of which seems to occupy the new students.

    It’s not as critical as medicine, in my field of study, if my subjects die I’ve basically got lunch ( har) but a few times an oceanography prof did the spot grill that resulted in him looking at the class like “have your brains been replaced with jelly donuts?”

    And while I’m an ace at all things oceanography, don’t exactly ask me about mass extinction events and their effect on the seas Because I get them quite confused. Fortunately, as you’re not into the OBGYN, I’m no use in matters of prehistoric ecology. (me: *crater, mass flood. whav. they’re all dead jim.*)

    but random science trivia tidbits are the exact things my brain likes to squirrel away so after this post, I have a few more for the random bin, curse you!

  2. December 1, 2009 10:42 pm

    Have I ever!

    This is something that often happens in art class critiques. Although we are much less academic about it!!!

    Thank you for a hilarious, and honest post!

    • December 1, 2009 11:13 pm

      Sad to hear from both of you that this ‘pedagogical technique’ is present in your fields too; I shake my fist at Socrates. Sometimes.

  3. December 2, 2009 10:28 pm

    Man, I have got to get that book!

    I could be a fly ass mac daddy! Who knew?

  4. Vanessa permalink
    December 11, 2009 12:12 am

    Jessica, this happens with the Pathologists I work with too. Thanks for enlightening me on what it’s called, “pimping.”

  5. January 1, 2010 10:34 pm

    Hi Jessica,

    Yep, pimping is universal in medicine (and more so in surgery). Looks like you have come through relatively unscathed… so far!

    The Brancati (free fultext at and Detsky papers are classic must-reads for anyone in medicine. At ‘Life in the Fast Lane’ we’ve also looked at these papers and incorporated our experiences into a 4-part pimping extravaganza starting with ‘Pimping in Perspective’ ( – but you’ll have to read to the end of Part 4 to learn about the ultimate ‘Get Out Of Jail-Free Card’ (

    Happy New Year!

  6. June 14, 2011 2:13 am

    Next time you get pimped ask them if they know the meaning of a positive Throckmorton sign.

    Its an old incidental radiologic finding of obscure significance but its present more than half of the time.

    Do this while looking at a pelvic XRay of bilateral hips that show a superior trochanteric fracture of one hip.

    (You’ll stump most except for the old timers like me.)

    Answer: The shadow of the penis often points toward the side of the injury. (Gender specific)

    Also known as John Thomas’ sign:

  7. June 14, 2011 2:23 am

    haha Throckmorton! one would hope it is gender specific

    I RARELY get pimped, and I’m on Obstetrics right now, but I’ll try and unleash that one when I have a student one day 😉

  8. June 17, 2011 2:04 pm

    Surgery and Internal Medicine definitely pimp the hardest. Best you can do is try to read up on commonly pimped stuff, ask other students or residents.

    And whatever you do, when someone else is getting pimped, don’t try to undermine them and interject. You don’t want your fellow pimpees to look bad.

  9. May 25, 2014 6:13 pm

    Wonderful blog! Do you have any helpful hints for aspiring writers?
    I’m planning to start my own blog soon but I’m a little lost on everything.
    Would you suggest starting with a free platform like
    Wordpress or go for a paid option? There are so many options out there that I’m totally confused ..
    Any tips? Bless you!


  1. Tweets that mention Pimping (in Medicine): the delicate art of making someone feel small « Dr. Ottematic --
  2. Pimping (in Medicine): the delicate art of making someone feel … | Dental Blogging
  3. REVIEW: Rohen’s Photographic Anatomy (for iPhone) « Dr. Ottematic
  4. REVIEW: Rohen’s Photographic Anatomy (for iPhone) « health care commentaries from around the world
  5. REVIEW: Rohen’s Photographic Anatomy (for iPhone) « Dr. Ottematic
  6. My Inpatient Hospital Rotation: Epilogue
  7. Hands of Blue « Nothing in biology makes sense!
  8. Hands of Blue | Medical Student Musings

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: