Medical school is draining. It’s a mix of sleepless nights spent studying, a lot of student debt, massive pressure to succeed, and learning to treat difficult patients over long hours at the hospital. This recipe for mastering medicine been used to train generations of physicians, but it appears to bake in a problem: Over the course of their studies, medical students tend to become less empathetic over the course of their training.
The issue is that empathy is increasingly valued as an essential tool for physicans, says Dr. Danika Franks, assistant dean of students for the Texas Christian University and University of North Texas Health Science Center School of Medicine in Fort Worth. The new medical school's first students started classes this summer. Franks says good medicine is more than deploying knowledge.
“You can’t hardly make a decision, a treatment decision, just based on symptoms alone,” says Franks.
The school has made “empathetic scholars” its brand, and emphasizes better communication with patients as a central focus for the development of new doctors. But that pits the school’s brand against research that shows medical school tends to reduce empathy in medical schools.
Research shows students enter medical school with higher rates of empathy than the average person, which declines sharply as they matriculate. Medical school stress also harms the mental health of medical students, who are at a high risk for suicide.
“Medical students have a tough journey,” that includes mastering a massive amount of information, high-stakes examinations, and deploying their new knowledge in complex situations while caring for patients, says Franks.
To help students navigate these stresses, the TCU-UNT Health Science Center school is turning physician development coaches — doctors trained to coach the students through the stresses of med school. A pair of coaches will work with a group of 10 students throughout their studies.
Coaches will build individual relationships with the students, check in regularly and hold drop-in hours for students to discuss pressing problems or an interesting case observed at the hospital. The coaching program also builds in a sense of group identity, which Franks likens to the sorting hat used to make house assignments in Harry Potter novels.
“There’s some good evidence to suggest that a sense of belonging and community is also very beneficial to medical students,” Franks says.
The hope is that the students will develop coping skills necessary to navigate not just medical school, but the stresses of a medical career.
That’s becoming a focus for more med schools across the country as concerns about physician mental health grow. Doctors face the highest suicide rate of any profession in the United States. Depression and burnout also impact patient care, says Franks, who was an emergency room doctor before she joined the medical school.
“It’s hard to care for patients when you’re struggling personally or are not really able to connect,” she says, adding that there’s a growing emphasis in medical education on teaching future doctors “combat, basically, the effects of burnout and overall giving them healthier strategies to be more competent over their careers over a lifetime."