Dean of Weill Cornell Medicine Augustine M.K. Choi stands with medical students at the White Coat ceremony in 2017.

Courtesy of Cornell University

Dean of Weill Cornell Medicine Augustine M.K. Choi stands with medical students at the White Coat ceremony in 2017.

September 8, 2019

Dean of Weill Cornell Pens Op-Ed About Burnout in Medical Education

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“Medical education needs to stop burning out students — now,” wrote Dr. Augustine M.K. Choi.

Similar words are always uttered by pre-med and medical students, but this time around, it was the Dean of Weill Cornell Medicine.

On Aug. 29, Choi, Dean of Weill Cornell since 2017, published an opinion article with STAT, a healthcare news source, about the subject. He wrote that medical education is churning out unhappy and exhausted students that turn into medical professionals with “increased risk of depression and burnout.”

The stress takes root well before medical school begins for most students, however. Many pre-med students express concern that they need to fit a cookie-cutter mold of the perfect applicant.

“We are all led to believe that we are fighting for the same spots at these given medical schools and that there is only one way to get there: a certain number of volunteer hours at a clinic, research in a biomedical lab, etc.,” Darya Musatova ’20, a pre-med student, explained.

Ernest Li ’22, who studies biology and economics, feels limited in terms of coursework. “I personally really hate that the current system disincentives premeds from taking hard but useful courses.”

However, Musatova holds a positive outlook. “One’s path to medical school, or any career in the health field, has to be personalized,” she advised. “Sure, there are some intro bio classes everyone has to take, but you need to find your own purpose.”

Choi outlines three steps that he believes the medical education system should take — first, integrate comprehensive wellness and mental health support into the learning environment; second, commit to documenting and reporting anonymized data about psychological distress among medical students; and third, evaluate shifting to a pass-fail grading system.

Sophia Xian ’21 shadowed doctors at New York-Presbyterian Hospital this summer, and shared some insight. “I’ve met students who have graduated, who are older than 25, who have changed majors so many times, who’ve had kids, and are all thriving and soon to be residents.”

Naya Sou, advising dean and pre-health advisor in the College of Arts & Sciences, sympathized with Choi’s article.

“Students think that getting into medical school is the end goal,” Sou said. “I remind them that medical school is just a new beginning.”

Choi’s article specifically addresses burnout, a term that has been deemed an “occupational phenomenon” by the World Health Organization.

Burnout has become such a serious concern that it is being addressed in various academic settings. Musatova noted that it was discussed in some policy classes: “You cannot expect positive outcomes from a coordinated healthcare system if the physicians, key players in the delivery of healthcare, cannot perform adequately,” she said.

Sou urges students to “master time-management skills and demonstrate work-life balance to avoid burnout,” and said that she will be sharing Choi’s article with students.

Sou shared resources for Cornell pre-med students: “medical application is stressful but there are folks on campus that can help. My advice is for all pre-health students to connect with the various pre-health advisors on campus.”

She said those advisors can be found online on Cornell’s Career Paths website.