Medical students are feeling burned out

A whopping 80% of medical students report a low sense of personal achievement­­––an indicator of burn out––according to a new study published in The Journal of American Osteopathic Association. And smartphones could be a factor in contributing to burnout.

The findings underscore other recent data about burnout and the potential implications for the healthcare field as demand for physicians continues to rise. Burnout is known as a psychological syndrome resulting from stressful work or work environment and can have serious implications in the medical field, including mistakes that could impact patient care. The syndrome is typically characterized by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and a low sense of personal achievement.

Researchers analyzed survey responses from 385 first- through fourth-year medical students on burnout for the study. The vast majority reported at least one of the symptoms of burnout, facing numerous challenges unique to medical school and its stressful environment.

Just 2.3% of students reported high levels of emotional exhaustion, compared to 17% who reported depersonalization and 80% for a low sense of personal achievement. The first two symptoms are also associated with higher perceived stress, poorer sleep and higher smartphone addiction scores.

“That [80%] feel a low sense of achievement is a bit ironic, considering that these are all high-performing individuals,” lead author Elizabeth Beverly, PhD, associate professor in family medicine at Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, said in a statement. “However, it also makes sense in that they have gone from an environment where they were standouts to one where they are now on an equal academic playing field.”

According to Beverly, medical school’s challenges that can cause stress and burnout continue to shift as time goes on.

“Throughout medical school there is always another test or requirement for students to prove themselves in a new way,” says Beverly. “Over time that can feel quite discouraging."

For example, year one students may feel overwhelmed by the vast amount of knowledge they have to learn, while board examinations become the focus in year two and clinical rotation with real-world application of knowledge begins in year three. Fourth-year students are focused on graduation and matching with a residency program.

In addition to medical school stressors, smartphone addition as a contributor to burnout is worrisome, Beverly noted. Twenty-two percent of study participants qualified as having a smartphone addiction, researchers found.

“I think the findings warrant additional research into how smartphone addiction can exacerbate burnout,” says Beverly. “Increasingly, medical education incorporates smart devices, so we want to be mindful of how much we condition students to rely on them.”