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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, February 26, 2024

Op-ed: The antidote to pre-med burnout? Caring connections.

As an undergraduate pre-med student at Tufts University, I decided to pursue medicine because I wanted to ease the immense mental health burden and apprehension that patients and families feel when facing serious illness or disability. I’m also a second-year transfer student who, incentivized to immerse myself in the world of healthcare with other similar, like-minded individuals, came to Tufts excited to prepare myself for the journey to become a doctor. But here’s a secret: Lately, the nonstop stress and grind of the pre-med track makes me sometimes lose sight of the purpose that inspired me in the first place.

The pre-med journey is notoriously grueling. First, we have to excel academically in challenging science prerequisites like physics, organic chemistry and calculus which demand hours of intense study. Then, we take the incredibly high-pressure MCAT exam that requires months of stressful preparation. We frantically scramble to rack up sufficient extracurricular experiences like research, physician shadowing and direct patient care to make our medical school applications as competitive as possible.

Through my conversations with friends and acquaintances in my classes, I realized that I wasn’t the only one feeling burned out. My peers, while driven, were also stressed out, feeling like  hamsters stuck on a wheel that keeps spinning no matter how hard they run. As a transfer student who spent my first year at NYU, I feel greater pressure to catch up to my peers, hearing a nagging voice in my head saying that I’m never doing enough.

As an ambitious pre-med student, I desperately want to succeed in the demanding field I’ve chosen. Besides my own worries, seeing concerning articles suggesting that 25% of medical students in the U.S. have seriously considered quitting their training makes me feel uneasy about the intense road that lies ahead for me after graduation. These disillusioned medical students cite a host of worrying factors fueling their burnout and desire to leave medicine, including mental health struggles, lack of work-life balance, the spread of misinformation about medicine and clinician shortages that lead to even more unrelenting pressures. This burgeoning wave of dissatisfaction and loss of meaning among the next generation of physicians-in-training does not bode well for addressing the growing shortage of doctors.

To avoid falling into the relentless hamster wheel that is burning out, it is imperative for pre-med students to stay meaningfully connected to the true heart of medicine. Through caregiving, I have effectively prevented my own burnout by taking on an entirely new perspective on healthcare.

As a public health ambassador for CareYaya Health Technologies at Tufts, a program in which pre-med students serve as caregivers for elderly and disabled clients within their local communities, I connect students in the pre-med community to families who are in need of care and allow them to assist clients with critical needs directly while building continuous and deep relationships with clients. In this job, I also work closely with Neal Shah, the CEO of CareYaya and my mentor, who constantly inspires me with stories of how much caregiving has transformed the lives of many families, and how the smallest amount of love and warmth could bring a smile onto one’s face. Through our several conversations, I slowly began to realize just how important community and relationships are in the world of medicine. Not only do these relationships benefit both isolated, elderly individuals and overburdened, younger pre-med students, but they also provide much-needed perspective, purpose and fulfillment. 

Thanks to my mentor, Neal, I was able to realize what truly lies at the core of medicine: humanity, which consists of love, care and empathy, which we all need to survive. As such, I am now able to dive deeper into what healthcare really means. In my work as a public health ambassador and my shadowing and volunteering work at Tufts Medical Center and Massachusetts General Hospital, I now clearly see just how much a reassuring action, a kind word or any form of warmth given to a patient could uplift their demeanor and reduce their stress. By walking closely alongside people navigating the challenges of illness and disability, I rediscovered my passion for compassionate service — what first drew me to medicine.

Authentic human relationships are so important: When students’ learning is rooted in caring for real people, not just demanding textbooks, we are able to foster empowered, empathetic clinicians who are fully prepared to serve whole persons, not just treat illnesses. After all, illness is only one component of a person who, like us, has their own unique life story, background and needs.

My generation truly faces immense healthcare challenges in the years ahead that will require wisdom, idealism and compassion to tackle successfully. But those essential qualities increasingly fade from view when medical education becomes joyless, transactional and hyper-competitive. We must urgently work to integrate humanities and social sciences with rigorous scientific training to nurture our humanity equally alongside clinical competency. Then, the passion, kindness and connection that first drew many of us to medicine can flourish and permeate our broken healthcare system.

Caring for others has an incredible power to renew the spirit. Though the pre-med path is undoubtedly arduous, rediscovering my sense of purpose and meaning through building human relationships has sustained me for the long road ahead. Let’s work together to build a healthier future healthcare workforce prepared to treat not just bodily disease, but also the loneliness, disconnection and mental health struggles that affect so many patients. With more care and community integrated into training, I know we can transform medicine for the better.