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Leadership Program Fans the Flames of Medical Students’ Fires

Jul 29, 2014 03:40AM

Fire transforms. A spark of interest, inflamed with enough energy to ignite, quickly kindles into a burning desire. Yet without fuel, even a robust blaze burns out.

Burnout is real and it is rampant. Major multi-institutional studies show that at least half of medical students across the country may be affected by burnout during their medical education. Further empirical research indicates burnout to be predictive for suicidal ideation and inversely correlated with empathy.

To reiterate, it is likely that half of all medical students are experiencing burnout. They are not only more likely to have suicidal thoughts; they are also more likely to experience a decline in empathy. More concerning, these effects are implicated to continue into residency and beyond, negatively impacting the physician-patient relationship and patient outcomes.

Why is it that medical students, who embark on their educational journey with statistically significant higher levels of empathy than their peers, suffer from a loss of empathy, ironically, as they train to care for others?  What smothers the flame?

Consider the origin of the word “empathy,” derived from the Greek “em” and “pathos,” literally “into feeling.” Current medical education keeps students out of feeling, instead favoring detached, technologic and objective clinical neutrality. Studies point to curricula—“formal,” “informal,” and “hidden”—as well as a lack of role models and the development of a sense of elitism, as main reasons for empathy decline.

So what fuel can we add to the fire to keep it aflame?  Not surprisingly, research reveals a positive correlation between well-being and medical student empathy and urges the development of student wellness programs. (Read: physician, heal thyself.)

In her famous TED Talk on the power of vulnerability, a subject she has studied for over a decade, researcher-storyteller Dr. Brené Brown tells us, “As it turns out, we can’t practice compassion with other people if we can’t treat ourselves kindly.” Moreover, she highlights courage and authenticity, in addition to vulnerability, as the keys to connection.

To empower medical students with these qualities—courage, authenticity and vulnerability—in order to reclaim wellness and empathy and to reignite their passion to heal, is the “hidden curriculum” of the Leadership and Education Program for Students in Integrative Medicine (LEAPS into IM; LEAPS). Each summer, 30 medical student-leaders from across North America are selected to attend LEAPS, a weeklong immersion into IM led by the Consortium of Academic Health Centers in Integrative Medicine (CAHCIM) in collaboration with the American Medical Student Association (AMSA) and the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, with the generous support of the Weil Foundation.

The “informal curriculum” builds upon the beauty of vulnerability to promote generous listening to the self. As a previous Student Director of LEAPS once said, “We didn’t teach them about self-care; we put them in an environment where they could learn to take care of themselves.” Nestled into the Berkshire Mountains, Kripalu offers a sacred space complete with ample natural beauty, yoga and dance, healing arts and nourishing, mindfully prepared and consumed meals. Through a collaborative model rather than a dominator model, students learn from mentors and one another. They build a lasting sense of community and nurturing relationships with role models. Elitism is replaced with modesty, respect and cooperation.

Finally, the “formal curriculum” teaches a student to be the teacher, to break down the barriers to vulnerability and to beat burnout. Students are armed with an artillery of experience and evidence supporting healing practices ranging from yoga and acupuncture to meditation and functional medicine. They have honed their leadership skills and developed strategic plans to implement projects promoting integrative medicine. They return to their respective medical schools ready to blaze trails, with courage and authenticity.

The curricula of LEAPS fan the flames of medical students’ fires. Here’s to hoping they transform medicine.

Kami Nicole Veltri is a medical student working at the GW Center for Integrative Medicine in during time off from her conventional medical education. She participated in LEAPS 2013 and served as the Student Director for LEAPS 2014.



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