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We thank Dr Launer for his reflection on burnout in the age of COVID-19. We would like to share our views on burnout as senior medical students. We believe that medical students are not immune to the pressures that have come from this pandemic and that there are important lessons for students about how to manage burnout before commencing their careers.
As students, we look to our senior colleagues as examples of how to manage stress and maintain a healthy work life balance. We have seen the passion that most doctors carry with them despite the circumstances and hope to apply what we have observed in our future careers. In Dr Launer’s intriguing reflection, he mentions that junior doctors should be protected from the illusion that clinicians will remain consistently fired with enthusiasm from foundation training through to retirement. We believe this is a concept that should be taught from the very beginning of one’s career, namely in medical school.
We remember as prospective medical students in secondary education, the discussions that surrounded pursuing a career in medicine being altogether the same - a rhetoric of saving lives and having a job that would be forever fulfilling. Although much of this is true, it seems throughout our education and inevitably as foundation doctors, the sugar-coating is removed and we are able to see what we were never told – that being a doctor can be hard, exhausting and frankly disappointing at ti...
We remember as prospective medical students in secondary education, the discussions that surrounded pursuing a career in medicine being altogether the same - a rhetoric of saving lives and having a job that would be forever fulfilling. Although much of this is true, it seems throughout our education and inevitably as foundation doctors, the sugar-coating is removed and we are able to see what we were never told – that being a doctor can be hard, exhausting and frankly disappointing at times.
Throughout medical school we are taught that we must be resilient. Our response to a negative stimulus must be to keep a stiff upper lip and carry on. When faced with stress and a high workload, we must learn to handle this and perform to a high standard. Although these are all fundamental skills that we look forward to putting into practice, we feel that many medical schools neglect the importance of encouraging students to develop the strategies required to ameliorate burnout.
During this pandemic, medical students have been expected to continue conducting research, clinical audits, studying for finals, amongst other tasks as part of our education. Despite these responsibilities, many students have taken this time away from hospitals to create COVID-19 response organisations within their communities, especially for ethnic group minorities who may be marginalised in these times of uncertainty. We have also been called upon as essential workers to volunteer in COVID-19 hospitals and many of us have risen to the challenge. Those of us who have volunteered on the frontlines have been exposed to the reality of emergency medicine, the stresses of a constantly changing healthcare system as well as the emotional burden of witnessing the deaths of patients as well as some of our senior colleagues.
The activities many of us usually partake in for stress mitigation such as practicing sports and social activities have not been available. A broader conversation about how doctors and students have juggled their responsibilities and mental health during this pandemic is needed. Dr Launer mentions that ‘the conditions for burnout are set early on’ in medical training. We agree and further suggest that the many years of education in medical school is an opportunity for prospective doctors to learn how to build a strong foundation for stress management which can continue on into medical training.
From our perspective, medical schools should put more emphasis on modules correlating the stresses of medical school with real-life medicine. This is likely to ensure that students enter employment with some insight into the possible pressures that lie ahead. It is important to facilitate conversations between doctors and students about the reality of burnout and what realistically can be done to manage stress. Furthermore, students should be encouraged to reach out for help more openly and frequently when needed - deconstructing the false narrative of pride and unrelenting strength amongst doctors begins in medical school.
Moving forwards, it is important to implement the lessons learnt during this pandemic before they are forgotten. The importance of a multi-disciplinary team, adaptability and quick thinking, communication and unity, have left the theoretical realm and become a living example to many students watching the NHS grapple with COVID-19. Although there will be uncertainty surrounding the structure of medical education going forwards, there are many learning points for students to take. We suggest universities across the country implement these reflections into future personal development curriculums as an important case study of resilience and stress-management.
1. Launer J. Burnout in the age of COVID-19. 2020.