The University Network

Osteopathic Medical Students Show Low Rates Of Burnout

With medical school comes notoriously long, stressful, work-filled days. Yet, students studying osteopathic medicine show surprisingly low rates of burnout, a new study finds.  

Burnout, a state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by prolonged exposure to stressful work, is a problem in many fields but is particularly high among those in medicine. Until this point, however, minimal research has assessed burnout in specifically those studying to become doctors of osteopathic medicine.

Doctors of osteopathic medicine (DOs) and the more traditional doctors of medicine (MDs) are alike in the sense that they both are similarly educated and licensed to practice in the United States. Where they differ is in their philosophical approach to patient care. 

“The osteopathic philosophy involves treating the mind, the body and the spirit. It’s a more holistic approach,” said Michael Jonesco, assistant clinical professor of internal medicine and sports medicine at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center. “For the patient, the osteopathic approach is less about prescribing medications and medical procedures and more on the body trying to heal itself.”

Only 2.3 percent of the 385 osteopathic medical students surveyed reported high levels of emotional exhaustion and 17.4 reported high levels of depersonalization — two of the three key dimensions of burnout.  

According to lead author Elizabeth Beverly, these are positive results. “Emotional exhaustion was very low. Depersonalization was also really low,” explained Beverly, an associate professor in family medicine at Ohio University’s Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine. 

However, when it came to the third dimension of burnout — sense of personal achievement — the results weren’t as impressive. An overwhelming 80.5 percent of students reported feeling like they haven’t personally achieved much.

Although that may sound bad, Beverly said it seems perfectly natural. “That’s how I felt when I was in graduate school,” she added.

Each year of medical school, Beverly explained, comes with its own unique challenges, stressors and uncertainties, which can contribute to students feeling like they’re underachieving.

In their first year, students have to come to terms with the overwhelming amount of material they have to learn. They’re allowed to shadow physicians, but they’re unable to perform any procedures. In their second year, they have to start studying for the medical board exams. In their third year, students begin clinical rotations. And in their fourth year, they are focused on graduating and being matched with a residency program. 

Throughout medical school, students have all of these unanswered questions in terms of whether they’re accomplishing everything they need to accomplish, Beverly explained. And they won’t really find out until the very end. 

Additionally, medical students often have trouble coming to terms academically, which can diminish their sense of personal achievement. 

Entering medical school, most students are used to receiving test scores in the upper 90s, Beverly explained. So it can be very discouraging to get to medical school and receive a grade in the B or C range.

“That 80 percent feel a low sense of achievement is a bit ironic, considering that these are all high-performing individuals,” Beverly said in a news release. “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.”

So, a key strategy to coping with burnout, Bevelry explained, is positive reframing. 

“What we need to teach the students is, it’s not that you got a C on this exam,” she said. “It’s that you know 72.5 percent of this information. And that’s a lot of information. That’s an achievement.”

It is, however, important to be upfront with students, Beverly said. 

“I think it’s important to know that burnout exists,” she added. “And I think that students who are interested in pursuing medicine need to be aware that burnout is out there. But going into any profession, there is a risk for burnout.”

Beverly is also confident that rates of burnout won’t discourage students from applying to medical school, which is important given an expected shortage of up to nearly 122,000 doctors in the United States by 2032, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.