Why medical students are burning out and lacking altruism

by mdstudent31

Recently, AAFP News Now released an article titled, Unprofessional Conduct Among U.S. Medical Students Linked to Burnout.

It focused on an article recently released in JAMA entitled, Relationship Between Burnout and Professional Conduct and Attitudes Among US Medical Students.

I had the opportunity to be interviewed for this article and was featured on an inset within the article that shared a minority of my interview. As I am currently rotating on inpatient medicine at a local community hospital, I am once again experiencing our health care system at its finest – a lot of wasteful spending and unnecessary testing. I am taking a look back at what I had wrote down for the interview and decided to paraphrase the majority of my response into the following blog post regarding the health care system and medical education.

When looking at the advances we have made in biochemistry, genetics, and molecular biology, we are being asked to know so much more information in much greater detail – and still within these 4 years worth of medical school.As more requirements are created and more scientific advances are brought forth, more time is needed in lecture and studying for tests like the USMLE and shelf exams. Most traditional programs are 4 years with 2 years of foundational science and 2 years of clinical experience.

For one, I believe that medical school admissions do not do a good job at identifying candidates that will provide an adequate workforce and/or will be good for medicine. It must be extremely difficult to screen applicants to figure out who is genuine about the profession – who is going into medicine because they truly want to go into medicine… on the other hand, who is going into medicine because they test well, and/or because their parents forced them into it throughout childhood. This is definitely a minority of students but nevertheless, takes away seats from other potential medical students who may choose to serve a better purpose and population within our health care system’s needs.

Maybe we are not bringing enough students into medicine that come from underserved areas; maybe we are not screening correctly in the admissions process to accept students who display genuine altruistic views and who do not fabricate an artificial personality in an interview and/or on a personal statement. The 40 MCAT, 3.9 pre-med GPA and 5 publications may look good on paper but may fail miserably at developing into an altruistic and compassionate physician.

It would be interesting to figure out specific determinants that make students less altruistic and less likely to serve the medically underserved. As medical students, we are molded by the experiences we are faced with during clinical rotations. Were these students who had more contact with patients who manipulate the health care system for primary or secondary gain? In most cases, our attitude in respect to patient populations trickles down from our attending physicians, residents and interns.

With defensive medicine taking precedence in many situations, medical students take notice of the frustrations felt by our superior members of the team. Are these attitudes more likely to occur in underserved areas? If so, medical students are not only discouraged, but definitely overwhelmed at the amount of follow-up required of the large volume of unnecessary testing that occurs. We spend so much time trying to cover our back that the amount of quality learning that actually occurs is dramatically reduced.

If we took just half the amount of time we waste on defensive medicine and documentation and shifted that towards more time for teaching rounds and instructional time by attending physicians and residents, I believe medical students would feel more satisfaction with their education and clinical experiences. As it is, medical students spend most of their time trying to help the interns and residents with non-educational work (what we refer to as “scut work”) so that we may eventually have time at some point for educational purposes.

Additionally, because there is so much more hand-holding by attending physicians towards the residents and all the way down to the medical students, it is difficult for medical students to convince themselves that they are actually contributing to the care of patients. Taking all of this together, it does not surprise me that studies are showing that medical students are burning out, documenting non-factual clinical findings, lacking altruism and altogether becoming unprofessional throughout the process.

The medical community as a whole needs a “face-lift” in regards to everybody’s attitude towards health care delivery. I do not think this will be possible until the health care system undergoes a much more meaningful reform to address the issues that attending physicians, residents, and medical students face due to the current clinical environment. The current political environment is not going to alleviate any of these issues because nobody is willing to commit to long-term changes in health care delivery and tort law.

Without meaningful tort reform, proper emphasis and payment for primary care, and population education about meaningful health care reform and personal responsibility, we will not peel through the layers and fix any of the intended and unintended consequences that have accumulated throughout years of failed policy and legislation.

mdstudent31 is a medical student who blogs at Future of Family Medicine.

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  • anonymous

    “maybe we are not screening correctly in the admissions process to accept students who display genuine altruistic views and who do not fabricate an artificial personality in an interview and/or on a personal statement”

    - if only … i think you propose an impossible task. it is extremely difficult to judge intent, even over a long period time. medical school admissions offices have a few pieces of paper and one day to interview.

    - regarding the jama article, i view this as analogous to the old saying “you can’t have your cake and eat it too”. the article describes lower rates of, for example, feeling of responsibility to society by medical students. well, it takes two to tango. what about society’s responsibility to medical students? is society asking medical students to be altruistically responsible for our fellow man while also asking medical students to solely bear more and more responsibility for their own futures, in the form of everything from higher tuition to higher overhead in practice to an entitled, almost attacking demeanor from the general public, all while wondering why medical students don’t excitedly say “thank you, sir. may i have another”?

  • Marc Gorayeb, MD

    You think medical school is no picnic? Wait until residency. Altruism is important, but a keen, focused analytical mind, healthy skepticism and determination will get you through. Now is not the time for you to obsess about the larger socio-economic issues.

    • http://thedocsquawk.com thedocsquawk

      Why not? It’s mdstudent31′s free time. Why do you feel the need to tell him/her what to obsess over? If anything, “larger socio-economic issues’” are what we need more people thinking about.

  • SmartDoc

    Sounds like screening for political correctness and loyalty to the government to me.

  • Bobbo

    I’d take a smart doctor over one who altruistically holds my hand any day of the week.

    Yes being compassionate is important, as are people skills and a genuine passion for medicine. But so is intelligence and work ethic. Theres a reason they look for good grades in Orgo and high MCAT scores. Remembering that chemical reaction may not make you a better physician but being a hard worker with a good memory and good study habits will.

    I find it unreasonable to ask medical students to be 100% altruistic while also asking them to pay 70k/year for med school and put their life on hold until they’re 30. They give up part of their lives and expect something in return. A medical system that relies purely on the altruism of those involved is a system that will soon fall apart.

  • gzuckier

    Treating med students and residents as brutally as we do is probably not the best way to teach them altruism.

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