Burnout among medical students is increasingly a concern in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Medical students looking to enter the medical field can be particularly vulnerable to the everyday stressors and pressures of entering and working in the profession, according to those in the field.
“The training is challenging,” said Nirali Chauhan, a second-year medical student and member of the Student Wellness and Resilience Committee at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “It’s expensive, it’s competitive, fast paced with large workloads and that’s before you add in the anxiety, stress and uncertainty of a global pandemic.”
Nearly three-quarters of younger, frontline health care workers reported burnout during the pandemic, according to a KFF/The Washington Post survey.
Burnout might present through anxiety, difficulty sleeping and trouble with concentration. More specifically, burnout can also manifest as compassion fatigue and emotional exhaustion to a point of emotional numbness and a lack of fulfillment in one’s work, according to Jenna Duffecy, associate professor of clinical psychiatry and director of the Resiliency Center at UIC.
The Resiliency Center provides mental health services to UIC’s College of Medicine medical and graduate students. The work of the Center also involves combating the barriers and stigma medical students experience that might prevent them from seeking mental health services. The Center launched in 2020, just prior to the pandemic.
“The medical students really got thrown into the deep end,” Duffecy said. “Trying to approach clinical service for the first time, understanding the needs of patients in such a complicated circumstance.”
“It’s really been so important that they have a place that is prioritizing their mental health and well-being, and we can make it clear as an institution, as a field, that their mental health matters,” Duffecy continued.
Chauhan teaches a class at UIC’s College of Medicine called Mindfulness, Meditation and Yoga for Future Health Practitioners. Chauhan says that while she teaches and employs mindfulness tools to improve well being, she cautions against self care being the entire conversation when it comes to addressing burnout.
She says examining learning environments and training culture as a whole are also important parts in preventing burnout and distress.
“It’s not just one thing that can prevent burnout; we have to come at it at all different angles because all people are different with different needs,” Chauhan said. “The students of today are the physicians of tomorrow, and it’s so important to create environments early in training to support the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of medical students’ lives.”