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AAMC 2014: The Sick Can't Help the Sick


The stress can be monumental and overpowering. Medical school is a lesson in life, as much as it is in practicing medicine. University of Utah Associate Vice President for Clinical Affairs Sean Mulvihill, M.D., talked to medical student Kiran Singh about how to cope and how the examples set by teachers and colleagues can help or hurt them. 

Announcer: Broadcasting from the Algorithms for Innovation booth at the AAMC in Chicago. The Health Care Insider is on The Scope, University of Utah Health Sciences Radio.

Sean Mulvihill: Kiran, tell me how you got interested in this issue of wellness of our medical students.

Singh: Some of the students that I've been surrounded by, a lot of them experience a lot of anxiety and depression. And so I've felt like that really sparked my interest because I've seen a lot of my friends and a lot of my peers just struggle with medical school and trying to be the perfect person, perfect medical student, and eventually the perfect doctor. And so that's how I became interested in this.

A lot of students say that they have the impostor syndrome, where you're just like, "Did I really get into medical school? These people are so much more advanced than I am. They're so much more intelligent, more well-rounded, and everything." So a lot of students experience that and that really affects their wellbeing and health.

Mulvihill: Oh, I get it, yeah. But one of the highest notions of a college is where we come together in this mutually supportive environment to push all of us forward. So what do you think we've lost along the way then? Is it the competition among the students, do you think? Is that part of the basis?

Singh: Yes, I think it really is. It's something that I feel like a lot of schools or a lot of people don't really address is that we create such a competitive atmosphere because we want our students to be perfect and to succeed and be great doctors that we don't even stop to think that we're creating this competitive environment, where you're basically creating people who don't get to have a life outside of their medical careers. And I was talking about how I feel like that translates when they become physicians. I've shadowed many physicians who don't get to balance their lives, don't have a very good mental health or social well-being, or anything like that.

Mulvihill: Sounds like something we need to work on because when you get out into the clinical world, of course, we have to work in teams, right? It's not competitive any longer, we're all supposed to be working on behalf of our patient. So what would your suggestions be? How can we make the environment more supportive and more balanced? Do you feel like you have insufficient resources or is it just this pressure around performance? Or, what is it?

Singh: I do feel that we're lacking a little bit in resources and ways to address this. This is something I wanted to research a little more. I know some schools, in order to create less of a competitive environment, enforce more of a pass/fail system curriculum, where you're more focused on becoming a better person, and that helps you as you become a doctor. Like they get a day off a week where they volunteer, do research, or shadow physicians. And they're pass/fail, so they're not competing against each other, they're working together.

And, I know they still do grades in clinical rotations, but it's still a little bit better because as I've observed from those schools, a lot of those students are a lot less stressed and a lot more able to spend time on themselves, or able to admit that they're struggling because it's important to them.

Announcer: Sparking conversations to transform academic medicine. For more, stop by our booth at the AAMC or go to, University of Utah Health Science Radio.

By: Sean Mulvihill

Sean Mulvihill, M.D., is associate vice president for clinical affairs for University of Utah Health Sciences.