The way we train doctors puts their mental health at risk: We need new solutions

Every year over 20,000 students graduate from U.S. medical schools. But despite having invested several years and eye-popping sums of money on their training, research shows that thousands of these young medics leave college feeling underprepared for the rigors of a career in medicine. 

Feeling ‘underprepared’ can range from a perceived skill shortage to a deficit of confidence, with residents who report such feelings also more likely to report symptoms of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and burnout. And it’s no coincidence that, during their residency training, 28% of physicians experience major depressive episodes (compared to only 7-8% of their non-medic peers). 

During my own time training to be a surgeon, I saw many of my peers struggle with chronic stress and anxiety. But treating the symptoms of poor mental health amongst the physician population is not a sustainable standalone solution. It’s time we acknowledged that inadequate training is at the root of a medic mental health crisis — one that has only been exacerbated by the pandemic – and that it’s going to require a smart and forward-looking fix. 

Outdated training costs lives  

Despite rapid, tech-driven advances in the practice of medicine, the predominant method of teaching future doctors hasn’t changed in decades. Students are expected to read textbooks, listen to lectures, watch demonstrations, and – if they’re lucky – occasionally participate in a practical session with a real patient.

However, revision via reading and listening alone typically results in very poor factual recall. This leads to anxiety and stress in exam season, which in turn causes memory impairment and interferes with learning and information retention . 

In contrast, repeated real-world practice is highly effective in increasing a learner’s confidence, in reducing their stress levels, and in minimising the likelihood of a (potentially life-threatening) mistake. But with hospitals busier than they’ve ever been, it’s getting tougher for trainees to access the low-risk, on-demand practice opportunities they sorely need. 

Virtual solutions with real-world impact 

Immersive reality technology (including virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR)) has proven potential as a scalable training tool for medics.  Accessible via a headset, computer or mobile phone, VR/AR tech integrates digital content with the physical environment in a way that allows the learner to engage either with a completely virtual or ‘blended’ reality. 

Because it allows for learning in a realistic way, recreating real-world and hard-to-access environments,  immersive training is unparalleled as a medical training tool. Studies have demonstrated that the tech serves to improve learner performance, reduce the time needed to deliver training, reduce skill fade and improve learner confidence.

Physicians who want to practice a particularly rare surgical procedure, for example, could use an AR platform to perfect the skill before going into the operating theatre. It’s almost a form of immersion therapy: practicing a process repeatedly means that when we show up in real life, we’ll be better prepared. After practicing in VR or AR, medics can access detailed data insights on their performance and identify any areas for improvement before practicing again. 

A medical student experiencing anxiety about delivering bad news to patients can also improve their confidence with immersive and interactive tech. For example, ‘virtual humans’ with inbuilt natural language processing and computer vision AI are deployed in some medical schools to help doctors learn how to communicate with patients more effectively.

Training that puts learner wellbeing first

In the face of a worsening physician mental health crisis and a global pandemic, US schools and hospitals have a unique responsibility: to pioneer a medical education that puts the wellbeing of the learner at its centre.

This year has shown that being a doctor is no longer just about skill: it’s about resilience, stamina, empathy, flexibility and teamwork. The way we educate medics needs to reflect this new reality; and prepare medics for the myriad challenges and pressures they will face.

The technologies to achieve this already exist, and are being used to a limited extent. But what is now the exception must become the norm. For too long we have been ignoring the impact of anachronous training programmes on the mental health of the doctors the nation relies on. Enough is enough; let’s roll out the modern training methods that modern medical practice – and modern doctors – deserve.  

Photo: PeopleImages, Getty Images