Making Medical School More Compassionate

For the most part, we study to become doctors because we want to help people. We want to save lives, heal the sick and make the world a better place. But when these dreams come up against the intense pressures of medical school, students can feel helpless and out of control. And in the worst cases, some commit suicide.



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To prevent these tragedies, medical schools are taking steps to become more compassionate in their training programs, both to help students succeed and to foster a sense of compassion towards their patients. Studies have shown that medical students start to lose their empathy within the very first year of medical school. This puts a hamper on patient communication and can limit the doctor-patient relationship, one of the characteristics most valued by patients. But it’s no wonder that students are losing empathy amidst the med school grind.


After recent tragedies, the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai is taking deliberate steps to make their medical training more compassionate. Quoted in the Wall Street Journal, the Dean for Medical Education, David Miller explained that “Medical school is a cauldron,” with residents who “feel very often helpless and hopeless, the machine is intense and churns on relentlessly.” In an essay in the New England Journal of Medicine, Muller describes the compassion he found from colleagues, students and friends in the wake of the tragic suicide of a student, which led him to question how Ichan could better support their students – “What else can we do to improve student well-being? How can we eliminate the stigma of asking for help?” he asks.


Icahn has created a cross-discipline taskforce to address these issues, focusing on students’ mental health, their physical health and the psychological impacts of the medical school environment. They plan to offer regular mental health check-ins and facilitate access to mental health professionals. They have also altered their “honors” system and are considering getting rid of it entirely.


The goal, as Muller explains, is that “the same kind of compassion and humanism we are teaching them to show patients, they should be showing each other and we should be showing them.”


Read more about Compassion Fatigue and 3 simple tips to maintain your happiness in med school.


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Laurie Breen

Laurie Breen is a freelance writer well-versed in research communications and grant writing. She received her Bachelors Degree in Psychology from Smith College and has worked previously at the University of Queensland's Centre for Clinical Research in Brisbane, Australia. Her favorite conversational topic is "antibiotic-resistant bacteria," making her a big hit at parties.