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Arts and humanities in medical school: a solution to physician burnout?

Students who spent more time studying humanities had significantly higher levels of positive physician attributes like empathy.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

Medical students who spend more time engaging in the arts may also be bolstering the qualities that improve their bedside manner with patients, according to new research from Tulane and Thomas Jefferson universities.

The study, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, finds that students who devoted more time to the humanities during medical school had significantly higher levels of positive physician attributes like empathy, tolerance of ambiguity, wisdom and emotional intelligence while at the same time reporting lower levels of adverse traits like burnout.

[Also: Reversing physician burnout requires total change in the culture of medicine]

In November, the Physicians Foundation published a survey that highlighted growing problems with physician burnout. Among those surveyed, 49 percent say they "often or always" experience feelings of burnout, and the same percentage said they would not recommend a career in medicine to their children. Fifty-four percent rate their morale as somewhat or very negative, and 48 percent plan to cut back on their hours, retire, take a non-clinical job or switch to concierge medicine. Eighty percent said they were overextended and didn't have time to see additional patients.

The findings have potential negative implications for clinical quality, which in turn can affect reimbursement. In an industry increasingly driven by consumers, patient satisfaction scores have become a measure that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services uses to determine reimbursement levels for hospitals and other providers.

Through an online survey, the team measured exposure to the humanities (music, literature, theater and visual arts), positive personal qualities (wisdom, empathy, self-efficacy, tolerance for ambiguity and emotional appraisal) and negative qualities associated with well-being (physical fatigue, emotional exhaustion and cognitive weariness) in 739 medical students at five medical schools across the country.

Those who reported more interactions with the humanities also scored higher in openness, visual-spatial skills and the ability to read their own and others' emotions. Those with fewer interactions scored higher for qualities associated with physician burnout such as physical fatigue and emotional exhaustion.

The authors encourage student engagement in the arts and humanities to foster the essential skills related to healthcare including observation, critical thinking, self-reflection and empathy.

Twitter: @JELagasse
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