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Published On September 12, 2016

POLICY

Physician, Rest Thyself

Burnout is on the rise among doctors. Is medical school the place to make a difference?

More than half of all American physicians now say they have experienced at least one symptom of burnout—emotional exhaustion, for instance, or a sense that their work doesn’t mean anything. That number is up by nearly 10% since 2011. Burnout also correlates with other risks, including a troubling increase in medical errors, according to recent studies.

Coping with the pressure of the job begins in medical school, a place where nearly half of all students report signs of burnout and more than 1 in 10 report having suicidal thoughts. So some schools have begun to build mental resilience into the curriculum. At Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, for instance, incoming students are now assigned mentors who meet with them regularly to address coping skills.

“Stress and burnout have a cost—to the doctor, the institution, the education and the vocation,” says Mary Brandt, a professor of surgery and former senior associate dean of student affairs. In her popular blog, Wellness Rounds, Brandt helps students learn work-life skills such as how to manage e-mail and to maintain a healthy diet on a busy schedule.

Another approach is to offer students tools to remind themselves why they wanted to become doctors in the first place. The Healer’s Art is a series of workshops now taught at more than 90 medical schools. Students might explore medicine through literature and art, write their own version of a Hippocratic oath or share objects that remind them why they chose their profession.

At Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA, pediatric residents undergo a resilience training program adapted from a method used by the U.S. military. Residents mentally prepare for situations where they are unable to help their young patients and also learn how to handle high-stress interactions, such as preventing a screaming match with an angry parent.

The residents learn how to regulate their emotions and are trained to identify signs of depression, trauma and burnout. Most important, they are taught the underlying biology of stress—how it behaves in the body and how it can be counteracted.

A young physician’s mental preparation for the job is only one factor in burnout. But the others—an industry where there are more patients to see, more administrative tasks and more demanding schedules—are beyond their control.

“You have to take care of yourself in the way that you can,” says Brenda Bursch, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, who co-founded the hospital’s resilience training program. “We need to be there for patients. Physicians must not lose the ability to empathize.”