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

Every year more than 20,000 students graduate from U.S. medical schools. But despite having invested several years and amassing money in their training, research shows that thousands of these young doctors are leaving college unprepared for the rigors of a medical career.

Feeling “unprepared” can range from a perceived lack of skills to a lack of confidence, as residents who report these sensations also show symptoms of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and exhaustion. And it’s no coincidence that, during residency training, 28% of physicians experience major depressive episodes (compared to only 7-8% of their non-physician peers).

During my personal training to be a surgeon, I saw that many of my teammates struggled with chronic stress and anxiety. But treating the symptoms of poor mental health among the medical population is not a sustainable autonomous solution. It is time to recognize that inadequate training is at the root of a medical mental health crisis (which has only been exacerbated by the pandemic) and that it will require a smart and forward-looking solution.

Obsolete training costs lives

Despite rapid and technology-driven advances in the practice of medicine, the predominant method of teaching future physicians has not changed in decades. Students are expected to read textbooks, listen to lectures, watch demonstrations, and, if lucky, occasionally participate in a hands-on session with a real patient.

However, reviewing only through reading and listening usually results in a very poor memory of fact. This causes anxiety and stress in the 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 student confidence, reducing stress levels, and minimizing the likelihood of a (potentially life-threatening) error. But with hospitals busier than they have ever been, it is becoming increasingly difficult for students to access the on-demand, low-risk internship opportunities they so desperately need.

Virtual solutions with real world impact

Immersive reality technology (including virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (RA)) has demonstrated potential as a scalable training tool for physicians. Accessible through headphones, computers or mobile phones, VR / AR technology integrates digital content with the physical environment in a way that allows students to interact with a completely virtual or “combined” reality.

Because it allows you to learn in a realistic way, recreating real-world environments that are difficult to access, immersive training has no parallel as a medical training tool. Studies have shown that technology serves to improve learner performance, reduce the time required to provide training, reduce skills fading, and improve learner confidence.

Doctors who want to practice a particularly rare surgical procedure, for example, could use an RA platform to hone the skill before entering the operating room. It’s almost a form of immersion therapy: practicing a process repeatedly means that when we introduce ourselves to real life we ​​will be more prepared. After practicing in VR or RA, doctors can access detailed performance data and identify any areas for improvement before re-practicing.

A medical student anxious to give bad news to patients can also improve their confidence with immersive and interactive technology. For example, “virtual humans” with integrated natural language processing and computer vision AI are deployed in some medical schools to help doctors learn to communicate with patients more effectively.

Training that puts the well-being of the student first

Faced with a worsening mental health crisis for physicians and a global pandemic, U.S. schools and hospitals have a unique responsibility: to be pioneers in a medical education that puts student well-being at the center.

This year has shown that being a doctor is no longer just a skill: it’s about endurance, stamina, empathy, flexibility and teamwork. The way doctors are educated must reflect this new reality; and prepare doctors for the countless challenges and pressures they will face.

The technologies to achieve this already exist and are used to a limited extent. But what is now the exception must become the norm. For too long we have been unaware of the impact of anachronistic training programs on the mental health of physicians that the nation trusts. Enough is enough; we put into practice the modern methods of training that modern medical practice and modern doctors deserve.

Photo: PeopleImages, Getty Images

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