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The Impact of Medical Student Burnout

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Medical student burnout isn't just prevalent, it's an epidemic. So profoundly does burnout affect the medical community that universities have begun to address it head on. Would-be doctors can face and overcome the challenge of burnout with the help of their administrators, but symptoms can be severe and include depression or other serious physical ailments.

What are you doing to prevent students from reaching the end of their rope? Read on to find out more about how common medical burnout is and what steps can be undertaken to address it at all stages.

[RELATED: Find out everything you need to know about medical student burnout and how to promote wellness in your school or institution.]

How Much Burnout Exists?

You might think that while medical students are stressed out, their history of academic success and remarkable stamina means they experience low rates of full-on collapse. Unfortunately, a 2016 study at the University of Chicago found that about half of surveyed med students exhibited at least one sign of burnout. This data backs up previous research that yielded similar results. The bottom line: Even if you think your students are thriving, chances are high that a significant number of them are close to hitting a mental and/or physical breaking point. Medical student burnout is pressing enough that it can be measured as inevitably higher than the general population (but more on that later).

How Does Burnout Affect a Med School Community?

The impact of burnout on medical students can quickly end up having an effect on the community at large. When students experience high levels of cynicism and physical exhaustion, the learning environment suffers. Not only can morale for a group of students decline, but grades may suffer. The learning process in a medical school is hindered when students are overwhelmed.

According to one 2018 study of student burnout, a substantial amount of burnout happens within the first year of medical school. This sets up students for a tough initiation into the world of medicine and may lead to student attrition if not addressed.

How Does Burnout Affect Individual Students?

The physical and mental exhaustion associated with burnout manifests in a myriad of ways in med students. For instance, medical students are more likely to deal with substance abuse than people with similar demographics who are not in medical school. Specifically, one study found that about 33 percent of med students reported the symptoms of alcohol abuse; only 16 percent of their non-med school peers face the same problem.

Burnout also shows up in symptoms such as sleeplessness, depression, anxiety, headaches, gastrointestinal problems and poor concentration. Students may respond to their symptoms by not only drinking more, but also by feeling very cynical and withdrawing socially. Students may even act out with disruptive behaviors that affect their classmates and jeopardize personal relationships. Finally, burnout can cause a student to seek other career paths out of fear that their symptoms are a sign of what clinical practice would look like in the long run.

Addressing burnout in medical students is the ethical responsibility of university administrators. Finding out which students are experiencing burnout and offering them resources benefits individuals and the community as a whole. Some ways to combat medical student burnout include offering courses on self-care, encouraging mental health services and implementing the Medical Student Well-Being Index into your wellness program. Successfully cutting back on burnout means strengthening the entire field of future doctors in the U.S.