Study: Medical school faculty found more meaning during COVID-19

Illustration. A doctor holds a stethoscope and a toy heartshaped objectPhoto/Getty Images

Just as COVID began in March 2020, researcher and physician Linda Pololi of Brandeis’ Women's Studies Research Center was set to launch a NIH-funded study through the year-long C-Change Mentoring and Leadership Institute with a diverse group of mid-career medical school faculty.

She had to postpone the start of the C-Change Institute until December 2020, but a month into the pandemic, in April 2020, decided to write to the 40 enrollees to ask how they were doing.

“Some of my colleagues said, ‘they’re all overwhelmed with coping with the epidemic, some are on the frontlines, you can’t burden them with another request,’” she said. “But I felt compelled to do it. As we were all living through that year of uncertainty because of COVID, our group decided that we should explore the effects of the pandemic on the faculty members that we were going to study in other ways, their vitality, what they bring to medicine, how we can help them be more successful in their careers, how they can learn about positive culture change and bring that back to their medical schools.”

Pololi asked: (1) How has the coronavirus affected the meaning you find in your work? (2) How are you feeling about your role and career choice now with the COVID-19 crisis? And (3) how are your values being impacted/ tested in these times? Most faculty answered promptly via email. 

To Pololi’s surprise, 97 percent of participants replied, saying that they were really busy but were grateful to have an opportunity to respond—to express their thoughts and feelings during these catastrophic circumstances. They reported rediscovering the meaningfulness of their work, whether in clinical care or in research, enthusiasm for their career choice, and feeling a newly heightened focus on applied science and on compassionate care for all. The findings were published in a report in The Journal of the American Medical Association co-authored by Pololi on Aug. 13.

“We collected these very poignant and inspiring writings, and we were very heartened by what they wrote,” she said. “It’s very aligned with the type of work that we do which is really looking after the humanity, dreams and opportunities of the people who work in the nation's medical schools.”

Pololi said that despite many accounts of negative mental effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on healthcare professionals, their simple research found important positive impact on physician-investigators and PhD scientists related to their experience of continuing to work during the pandemic. The respondents expressed excitement and enthusiasm associated with an enhanced clarity about the meaning of their work. Faculty linked meaningfulness to the value of science, patient care, the essential nature of medical education and mentoring, and the realization of the contribution they were able to make.

They also strongly reasserted their choice of career. These outcomes, she said, have implications for combating burnout and retaining medical investigators in the future.

“Ours and other studies show that over 40 percent of the nation’s medical school faculty are burnt out, and we wanted to know if they would leave medicine or walk forward into the fight, how they would view this in terms of their own families, lives, careers,” she said. “They said no one had asked them these questions and they were grateful to have an opportunity to express their feelings and thoughts. Their responses are a moving testament to the altruism and professional dedication of very diverse groups of faculty in academic medicine.” 

Burnout results in being less efficient, less compassionate, and less creative. She said the responses from this study have implications for combating burnout and retaining medical investigators in the future.

“‘Vitality’ is the opposite of ‘burnout’ — or certainly burnout can't coexist with high vitality. Helping faculty find meaning in their work and articulate their values and have these values align with their work, together with structures and support for relationship formation, would likely enhance vitality,” she said. “We are suggesting that medical schools should consider putting in place structures focused on these intrinsic motivators so as to support the vitality of their faculty — even when under exceptional stress, or even more importantly when under extra stress — to reduce the toll of burnout in medical school faculty.”

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences, Research, Science and Technology

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