Residents Proud of Pandemic Response, Lament Lack of Social Life: Survey

Naomi Shammash

October 22, 2021

Residents face long hours, scut work, and learning on the front lines of COVID-19, but life outside the medical workplace isn't necessarily stress-free either. Balancing a social life, focusing on personal wellness, and thinking about future career options can all weigh on residents.

More than one third of residents say they "rarely" or "never" have time to lead a satisfying social life, according to the Medscape Lifestyle & Happiness Report 2021. This is an increase from last year's report (27%). About half of residents (47%) reported that they "sometimes" have the time to do so. Seven in 10 residents who responded that they rarely, never, or sometimes have time for a social life said that their personal relationships have suffered as a result.

Four in 10 residents said the balance between their personal life and their healthcare profession is what they expected, and 36% said it was much or somewhat worse than expected.

Amelia Breyre finished her emergency medicine residency in July 2020. For herself and many residents, she said, the financial strain of education debt and a challenging work schedule often delay such life events as having children or buying a house like others in their age group.

"Interns who started their training in the pandemic had a particularly challenging year balancing personal lives, as many of them moved to new cities, started new jobs, and learned new systems, often without the traditional social support of a fellow co-intern or co-resident," she said.

Residents Struggle to Ask for Mental Health Help

One third of residents say they rarely or never have time for their personal wellness, an increase of 8% from last year's report (25%). In this group, women (39%) more often replied that they "rarely" or "never" had time for personal wellness compared with men (29%).

Half of residents say they rarely or never feel depressed. Those replying "always" and "most of the time" (11%) rose from last year (7%).

More than two thirds of residents somewhat or strongly agree that there is a stigma among peers in seeking help for their mental health. Women (30%) more often strongly agree that there is a stigma than do men (23%).

Cherie Fathy, a fourth-year ophthalmology resident, agrees that there are clear barriers to seeking mental health care. "It's not easy to access such care, and it requires some extra coordination. Appointments are also often during clinic time, making it difficult for us to make it to the appointments," she said.

While two thirds of residents said their workplace offered a stress relief program, three quarters say they have not taken advantage of it. The main reasons for not utilizing these services were a lack of time, thinking it was unnecessary to go, and thinking the program would be ineffective.

Larger percentages of residents choose positive methods of reducing stress, such as getting sleep, talking to family members/close friends, and exercising, rather than negative methods, such as eating junk food and isolating oneself. Women talked to others to relieve stress (82%) more than men (70%).

Pandemic Affects How Residents View Their Career

One third of residents say they are prouder of becoming a doctor because of the pandemic. Forty percent say they are worried about healthcare overall, but just 1 in 5 say they're worried about their future as physicians. Residents responded about equally to feeling more or less appreciated because of COVID-19, with men (32%) more likely than their female counterparts (26%) to say they are more appreciated as a medical professional.

Although the large majority of residents overall said that COVID-19 has not made them reconsider medicine, more women (20%) than men (14%) said the pandemic made them reconsider entering the field.

Forty percent of residents reported considering a different career choice during residency overall. Women (43%) were more likely than men (36%) to have considered a different career. The most popular alternatives were business/finance, engineering, consulting, biotechnology, or anything non-clinical where they could use their medical degree.

Unsurprisingly, Residents' Biggest Complaint Is Work Hours

Respondents rated maintaining their work-life balance as the biggest challenge during residency. About two thirds said a better work schedule and call hours would help ease burnout, with better compensation (45%) and schedule flexibility (40%) as the other top ways to provide relief.

In looking for their first job post-residency, the most popular factor was work schedule/call hours (36%), with a supportive work environment and starting salary not far behind. More women (25%) than men (19%) desire a more supportive work environment. More men (19%) than women (11%) said that compensation was a key factor, and twice as many men (8%) as women (4%) said the same about the potential for career advancement.

Although about half of residents reported that their professional relationships with attendings and nurses stayed the same, one quarter of residents said their professional relationships worsened. The main reasons for relationship quality decline were much less social interaction on the job and outside of work, as well as the stress of daily patient care. "I haven't seen my co-residents in over a year," said one respondent.

Residents reported that the value of clinical knowledge is the most rewarding part about residency, followed closely by the gratitude of and relationships with patients, being good at their work, and relationships with fellow residents. Men (45%) were more likely to say that they highly valued the potential for making good money as a doctor than were women (32%).

More than 1500 residents in more than 29 specialties responded to the Medscape survey.

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