Moral of the Story: Combating Burnout and Apathy

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Although the syllabus lists tonight’s agenda as Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer,1 our conversation pivots from the United States’ culpability in the Vietnam War to loaded rhetoric surrounding slogans like “Make America Great Again.” These digressions are both common and welcome in our monthly book club meetings. Designed to address the intersection of literature and medicine, this novel longitudinal academic track invites medical students to reflect on the reality of others. Each month, students at Georgetown University School of Medicine volunteer their time to carefully dissect fictional works in a stress-free group environment. Time and again, these novels serve as proxies, allowing students to share their experiences, successes, and failures within and outside of the hospital. Though it might not be obvious at first glance, this track exists to help us cope with burnout.
Mounting research reveals that medical students across the nation are losing empathy and the ability to relate to our patients’ struggles.2 At the same time, burnout is evident not only among practicing physicians but also among trainees, starting with our time in school.3 Could a book club help buffer these undesired effects of our current medical education? Perhaps. Studies have demonstrated the protective influence of the humanities in medical curricula.4 With the demands of medical school and looming shelf examinations, it becomes increasingly challenging for students to carve out time for allegedly frivolous hobbies. Yet each month, a group of tired but enthusiastic medical students gather together to listen—but also to be heard.
This is the first year that students enrolled in the track will graduate having completed the curriculum from the beginning of medical school. And if the monthly classroom is a barometer, the track is succeeding in its ambitious goal of creating happier and more empathic individuals.
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