A Hotline for Med Students Facing Burnout

Medical Students Changing Medicine

Varsha Radhakrishnan, MD; Ragha Suresh, MD


May 03, 2019

Medical training is a grueling odyssey. Burnout is not unique to the medical field and is often characterized by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment, as defined by the Maslach Burnout Inventory. As has been extensively documented, burnout among physicians and physicians-in-training can lead to decreased self-care, increased rates of depression and suicidality, reduced productivity, lower quality of patient care, a reduced sense of satisfaction, and medical errors. Tackling this phenomenon is daunting, given how systemic the problem is. The list of contributing factors ranges from inherently demanding schedules filled with high-intensity work to conflicts in professional and personal relationships.

Both physicians and medical students support educating the public about mental health. However, a study by Kopera and colleagues found that medical students and some mental health professionals reported negative implicit attitudes toward individuals with mental illness. This suggests a stigma that is difficult to extinguish, even with proper education.

In a study that examined the impact of stigma and personal experience on help-seeking behaviors of medical students, only one third of medical students experiencing burnout sought professional help for an emotional or mental health problem within the previous year. Moreover, only 26.9% of medical students sought professional help for serious emotional problems, which is a lower proportion than seen in the general population (44.3%) and among age-matched individuals (38.8%). Many students cite time constraints as an impediment, along with concern that seeking help will affect their professional advancement or impact ability to apply to residency programs.

Students Helping Students

As students at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School (NJMS), we become involved in and passionate about wellness and combating burnout. We recognized that burnout is pervasive and that it existed within our own medical school community. We were both board members on the Student Council, and multiple fellow students reached out to us about the difficulty in accessing mental health clinicians, mostly owing to high demand. Many students expressed discomfort with taking time off from clerkships to attend an appointment because of fear of retaliation or negative impact on evaluations.

On a personal note, we were roommates in medical school and jointly experienced an all-too-familiar "imposter syndrome" and feelings of isolation, due to intense stress and a perceived lack of control over our own schedules. As fourth-year medical students, the more we began surveying our fellow classmates through social media, the more we realized the importance of feeling supported and having our experiences validated by peers who were able to empathize with us. That's when we began working on a strategy to help address the burnout epidemic.

Although Rutgers NJMS has various programs focused on student wellness and mitigating stress, the overwhelming responses we received when surveying our classmates revealed a gap that needed to be addressed. A formal student wellness program is available through student affairs that includes the services of professional counselors during the week by appointment. Mentorship programs and humanities group programs help incoming students with the transition into medical school. Wellness groups on campus offer stress-relieving activities, and formal lectures are provided through the psychiatry interest group. However, no resource was available over weekends or after business hours, the most common times when busy medical students are able to engage in self-care. In particular, third-year medical students struggling with intense work hours, poor work-life balance, and an isolating schedule could easily "fall through the cracks." Identifying this gap in the existing set of resources led us to develop a student-run organization: Rutgers NJMS Peer Wellness.


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