Physician Burnout: Should You Worry About It Just Yet?

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Getting burned out is not something you think about when you are in medical school. You know medical training is not going to be a picnic but you are looking forward to learning something new every day and everything sounds too promising to worry about the potential side effects. However, studies have shown that burnout usually commences in medical school and as a med student you need to be particularly watchful to avoid this exhausting condition.

Most medical students plan on pursuing a career in medicine believing that their hard work will make a difference in so many people’s lives. Students enter this field knowing that they will have to work harder and longer than if they had chosen most other career fields. While they are mentally prepared to go through the grind, what many students do not anticipate is how the experience can change them and how early physician burnout can occur.     

Burnout can occur due to three distinct reasons as identified by the widely accepted and used Maslach Burnout Inventory: 

  1. Depersonalization: Continuous exposure to ailing patients can leave med students feeling overwhelmed and depleted. To counteract this, many residents start to see patients more impersonally, causing them to be less empathetic in their treatment.
  2. Emotional Exhaustion: Medical students have still not got a handle on staying detached from their patients. The emotional aspects of the work can result in residents feeling overextended and emotionally drained.
  3. Negative Sense of Accomplishment: It takes time – several years in fact, to come to grips with the fact that sometimes, no matter what you do, it is not enough. This lowered sense of achievement causes med students to find the work less fulfilling than they thought it would be. 

Gap Medics student Liam working in the paediatrics department in Tanzania, whilst on his hospital work experience placement.

Burnout Can Be Prevented 

As in any other profession, the most effective way to prevent burnout is by making a concerted effort not to make this your whole life. Sure, there’s so much to study about and catch up with but you still have to stop and take a break if only to recharge your batteries. Keep in touch with family and friends. Make time regularly to spend doing something you love, whether it is going to the movies, going trekking or catching up with your knitting.   

Seek out advice from a mentor or a course advisor if you are feeling completely overwrought. Many students hesitate to ask for help because of they may be perceived as being simply incapable of keeping up with the coursework. Don’t let this fear stop you from getting the help you need. Burnout is not a figment of your imagination. It is real and it can happen to anyone. Most medical schools have recognized this and are making a concerted effort to address this issue in their curriculum in an attempt to prevent burnout in their students. In many medical schools, faculty members are encouraged to be more proactive and use their own experiences to help students cope with the stress of rigorous medical programs.

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