The burdens of college students at all levels are magnified when future doctors are taken into consideration. The Mayo Clinic surveyed 12,500 medical students for a paper just published in Academic Medicine, finding serious problem behaviors among the group.
Exhaustion and tremendous financial stress were two of the main complaints from students, no surprise when considering the time and money commitment of adding many more years on to one’s college education. The problem lies in how medical students are handling these hardships. One-third of the 4,400 who responded report clinical alcohol or other substance abuse. For non-medical students nationally, the number is 16%, which means twice as many of those training as medical professionals are overusing alcohol or drugs.
“Burnout and Alcohol Abuse/Dependence Among US Medical Students” reveals what many have suspected: “Students who were burned out, depressed, or reported low mental or emotional quality of life were more likely to have alcohol abuse/dependence.” Additionally, unmarried students are at higher risk of abuse as well as those with more than $50,000 in debt. There doesn’t seem to be any gender difference in alcohol rates, though younger students are more likely to have problematic drinking.
‘Burnout’ is defined by paper authors using a 22 question proven inventory, measuring “three domains of burnout: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and personal accomplishment.” Each of these factors is an issue on its own, but the first two combined provide a dramatic sense of despair that can lead to serious issues like suicide ideation. Students scoring high on personal accomplishment are protected from burnout.
Of the total medical student sample, 80% exhibited either burnout, alcohol abuse/dependence, or depressive symptoms while 70% had burnout, alcohol abuse/dependence, and/or suicidal ideation present. Despite eventual payoffs, both financial and socially, the strain of medical school is dramatically affecting the vast majority of students.
The Association of American Medical Colleges, one of the study funders, is taking seriously these findings. Though the US population is increasing and there is a shortage of doctors, academic policy makers realize the problems associated with medical student burnout. Residency and internship hours have been legally changed over the past few years, and wellness curricula focused on managing stress and life balance have been proposed.
Study authors note the tremendous cost of medical school attendance as something that must be addressed. “In 2014, the average medical student graduated with $180,000 of debt,” a bigger problem as the health care system is changing how much doctors earn. With the future unclear, it is no wonder today’s students worry about ever being able to repay their loans even with a stable career.