Doctor wellness is a marathon effort and training should start in medical school

A career in the medical field is indeed demanding, and recently, it is increasingly apparent that there is a tremendous toll on doctors, including burnout. Research into this has concluded that there are both systemic and personal financial costs due to doctor burnout.

Burnout is a type of psychological exhaustion, inefficacy, and disengagement that occurs from prolonged exposure to work-related stressors. Physician burnout can even occur during medical school as a result of its personal and professional consequences.

There is a widespread uptrend on doctor burnout, where we see the associated cost of such issues globally documented.

Researchers and educators today are becoming increasingly aware of mental health issues and the importance of preventing and understanding mental illness. A medical education researcher in the faculty of medicine and dentistry from the University of Alberta, Canada, has explored how practices prior to and during the professional education pave the way for one’s professional career.

The research, in partnership with a researcher in the faculty of kinesiology, sport, and recreation, investigated how undertaking non-academic activities such as exercise and sports may protect students from burnout, and therefore allow them to better manage academic challenges and stressors.

It is vital to understand how to avoid burnout among professionals, who have taxing careers such as medicine, before they reach the point of mental illness, exhaustion, and leave their jobs. A way to approach this is to consider the original influence at the beginning of one’s career.

The risks begin in medical school

A study undertaken recently in the US showed that one is most at risk of burnout during medical training. Evidence suggests that it can take months for burnout to abate. In cases where burnout occurs in school, it’s highly likely that it will still be present when students graduate and enter medical practice.

Burnout is more common amongst high-performing people, such as medical students, than in the general population. However, it’s important to note that high performing doesn’t inevitably mean appropriate coping resources.

Those medical students who have qualified for independent practices usually report a difficulty in coping with the uncertainties and challenges working in a complex and high-stake environment. These thoughts can impact a physician’s abilities negatively, and ultimately result in inefficient use of their skills and knowledge, creating medical errors and high staff turnover.

Although some trainee physicians experience psychological issues due to the educational challenges, others develop and adapt lifelong wellness and learning practices.

Medical school admissions committees have historically searched for high-achieving students. Once in medical school, the successful journey of these students is often assumed to continue through the rest of their careers and when faced with educational challenges.

Although, many high-performing students who enter medical school have never experienced serious educational failures or setbacks, and therefore, it’s likely they have inexperience with how to cope effectively. The fear of failing is one of the main reasons for psychological ill-being in medical students.

Mastery mindset

However, the research suggests that coping with challenges effectively is a skill learned over time. For example, medical students who have taken part in athletics or sports in their lives are often well versed in handling academic stress and challenges.

Where physical activity is undertaken recreationally and is an effective coping mechanism, the competitive pursuit of sports gives more opportunities for students to develop resilience. Being resilient and having that mindset can influence how a person functions in challenging, highly stressful environments, like medical school and medical practice.

By striving to master goals and pushing forwards, the development of resilience and an adaptive mindset can be facilitated. By focussing on learning new skills and improving knowledge increase of comparing performance of being self-critical, one can adopt a resilient mindset.

Those people with a mastery mindset can shape their negative experiences in productive ways. They look at setbacks as valuable opportunities to improve and learn rather than as defeats or shameful events. With sport, one can have the context to learn and develop such a mindset.

Regardless of the familiar advantages of sports and exercise, recent studies show that students who are involved in such activities and those who exercise regularly tend to see the habit deteriorate upon entering college. A study undertaken with medical students in Australia showed that the majority of students exercised more before they commenced medical training.

Learning environment matters

Important questions are raised here as to which learning environments and curricular activities are likely to help students in medical school maintain their exercise habits and foster useful wellness practices.

This topic is prevalent because those physicians who spend time exercising more often or exercise at high intensity tend to have better professional well-being. These individuals are usually more engaged, more professional and less exhausted in the working environment.

Research has also suggested that medical students and physicians who undertake a healthy lifestyle of their own will ultimately counsel their patients on these topics. These individuals help to promote and exemplify the foundation for the prevention of chronic diseases.

Students may have developed good practices in sports or athletics prior to joining medical school, however they must learn to transfer the skills into an academic setting. This transfer must be fully supported by the medical schools, including any change in the learning environment and the culture of perfection.

The benefits to be gained could result in long-term impacts at various levels, including health care systems, physicians and the people they look after.


Humanitas is a highly specialized Hospital, Research and Teaching Center. Built around centers for the prevention and treatment of cancer, cardiovascular, neurological and orthopedic disease – together with an Ophthalmic Center and a Fertility Center – Humanitas also operates a highly specialised Emergency Department.