Medical Schools Focus on Student Wellbeing and Mental Health to Reduce Burnout

In our recent newsletter, we highlighted the topic of burnout among today’s working population. Burnout, or the experience of chronic stress which leads to physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism and detachment, and feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment, remains a pressing issue within the medical student population. A literature review published in late 2018 “confirmed that suicidal ideation in medical students remains a significant concern” and cites studies showing that “medical students in their first year of studies have similar rates of psychological morbidity to the age-matched general population, but experience a worsening of their mental health as they progress through medical studies.”

Medical students and residents, who are often under intense pressure physically and emotionally, suffer from a lack of sleep, extremely long hours of work and study, as well as the emotional, life and death decision-making involved in the work. This is often compounded with a subconscious need to avoid seeking mental health professionals for fear of negative judgment from those around them or even endangering their medical licenses.

The accumulation of data on the mental health of medical students, coupled with the recent high-profile losses of medical students in New York City and California have spurred action and a recognition of the need for additional support for physicians in training. The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education is promoting the importance of wellbeing, which goes beyond addressing burnout, and has compiled and posted a tools and resources page on its website:

Moreover, many medical schools are showing that they too are committed to changing the culture of medical education to improve students’ wellbeing. Prospective students should pay particular attention to the following when further evaluating the schools on their list:

  • Commitment to wellbeing: Many schools have codified their commitment to their students by creating wellbeing mission statements and making significant investments in wellbeing resources. At the Icahn School of Medicine in NYC, a wellbeing task force was created in 2016. In addition to creating a mission statement to focus momentum and drive steady action, the school has renovated student housing to include a wellness center.

  • Accessible, confidential, and judgment-free mental health resources: This may include access to psychologists or psychiatrists, confidential check-in surveys or interviews, and/or counseling sessions during hospital rotations. At USC Keck Medical School and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, mental health teams have been put in place to ensure the schools do not lose sight of the mental health and wellness needs of their students. Both are working to decrease the stigma around using mental health resources as well as increasing confidential mental health evaluations and services.

  • Culture promoting a healthy academic environment: Some schools are taking tangible actions to create an academic environment that promotes rigor but not burnout and depression. Many programs also encourage collaboration, provide wellness curriculums, and promote comradery within the classes through social activities (appropriate for various personality types) and occasional days off. Examples include Duke School of Medicine’s wellness curriculum starting with a resiliency course at orientation, USC’s requirement for students to take several “mental health” days to combat burnout, and Icahn’s assessment and restructuring of grade distributions.

In September of this year, Weill Cornell is partnering with AAMC, AMSNY, and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to put on the National Conference on Medical Student Mental Health and Well-Being. It is billed as being the “first comprehensive, multidisciplinary forum to examine the mental health needs of medical students.” Change is underway and it is an exciting time to be considering medical school. However, prospective and current students must engage in the dialogue, stay informed, and ultimately commit to making their wellbeing and health a priority.