Not too long ago, I read a paper titled “Burnout and Suicidal Ideation Among U.S. Medical Students” in The Annals of Internal Medicine. It brought back a flood of memories.
Medical school was not easy for me. I knew that I wanted to become a doctor to help people, but I had given little thought to the process. I was poorly prepared for many things: the pressure to excel in ways that seemed so far from caring for people; rapidly mounting debts I signed off on every semester; a roller coaster existence from chronic lack of sleep; hazing from the more experienced students and residents; and the realities of patient suffering despite my best efforts.
Even surgical residency, despite the relentlessly long hours, seemed so much closer to what I wanted to do.
Some of my professors tried to “humanize” the process. They invited us to dinner in their homes, supported our extracurricular efforts to set up health screening clinics in low-income neighborhoods, and tried to make our basic science courses more relevant to working with patients. But sitting where I am now, as someone who teaches medical students and who loves helping others as a doctor, I can understand the challenge they faced. Given the fire hose of information medical students must learn in just four years, how does one ever gently take a sip?
Despite my teachers’ efforts, I was about as miserable in medical school as I had ever been. I felt alone. Neither I nor my classmates could admit to failure, and the last thing I wanted to do was to let anyone but my closest friends know just how unhappy I was. Success in medical school was the first step to a future of helping others, and I was not about to jeopardize that.
Last week I had dinner with two former classmates from that time. We had not seen each other in over a decade, and after catching up on personal news and reminiscing about gross anatomy lab and our first nights on call, one of them said quietly, “I hated med school. I wanted to quit.” The elephant in our collective memories had broken free.
With that elephant now running loose, and the three of us more comfortable with our own professional accomplishments, the conversation grew more honest. “If you look over my entire lifetime,” my other friend said, “those four years were the lowest point in terms of self esteem.” He held his hand out in the air, plotting an imaginary line that dropped precipitously to his knees.
It took nearly 20 years for the three of us to learn that we had each been miserable as medical students. It has taken even longer for researchers to discover the extent to which such feelings exist among American medical students.
In 2006, Dr. Liselotte N. Dyrbye and her colleagues at the Mayo Clinic found that nearly half of the 545 medical students they surveyed suffered from burnout, which they defined as professional distress in three domains: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and low sense of personal accomplishment. Moreover, the researchers found that each successive year of schooling increased the chances students would experience burnout, despite the fact that they had entered medical school with mental health profiles similar to those of their peers who chose other career paths.
More recently, in the paper on burnout that had first caught my eye, Dr. Dyrbyre and her colleagues widened the scope of their research, analyzing survey responses from 2,248 medical students at seven medical schools across the country. Again, nearly half of the students surveyed met the criteria for burnout. But the investigators discovered an even more ominous finding: 11 percent of all the students surveyed also reported having suicidal thoughts in the past year.
Dr. Dyrbye notes that we are just starting to learn about the high levels of distress in medical students. “It’s incredibly disconcerting,” she said. “What are the causes? And what can we do as educators to facilitate their well-being? We need a better understanding of the causes of stress to design interventions that will help improve student wellness. Students, just like doctors, need to take care of themselves in order to take care of their patients.”
Medical schools have more recently recognized the importance of this issue. For example, the Liaison Committee on Medical Education, the accrediting authority for medical schools in the United States, now mandates that all schools have a program for student wellness in place that includes “an effective system of personal counseling for its students.”
But beyond the personal implications, what are the ramifications of medical student burnout for patients?
In a third study, Dr. Dyrbye found that when tested for empathy, medical students at baseline generally scored higher than their nonmedical peers. But, as medical students experienced more burnout, there was a corresponding drop in the level of empathy toward patients.
“What do they really need to know before graduating from medical school, and how could they most efficiently learn?” Dr. Drybye asked, reflecting on one of the central challenges of medical education. “All the information we want to share with them is not necessarily what they really need to learn.”
By the time my dinner with my former classmates last week had ended, we had made plans to stay in touch and to do something I had never been sure I would ever do: return to my medical school in two years’ time to celebrate our 20th reunion. Over the course of our dinner conversation I felt strangely connected and nostalgic about medical school; I was deeply moved by what my two classmates had chosen to do with their education. One is a well-loved community obstetrician/gynecologist; the other is a psychiatrist devoted to teaching, working in a county medical clinic and caring for severely traumatized Hmong refugees. And both love their work as doctors.
As I listened to them talk about their work, I was reminded of one other thing Dr. Dyrbye had told me. “We need to change things,” she had said, “because maybe the students who are most vulnerable are the ones who are most empathic.”