Medical school expands stress relief programs

The medical school is expanding its health and wellness offerings this fall to help students endure four taxing years of academics and hospital rotations.

The School of Medicine and Health Sciences added workout gear like hula hoops and dumbbells to its library and began offering Zumba, yoga and cooking classes to de-stress students faced with shrinking residency opportunities nationwide.

The wellness initiative precludes the school’s community health committee, which will meet for the first time this week. The committee will look for pathways to incorporate physical, mental and spiritual health into the medical school’s curriculum, including potential courses that could be added in time for the school’s broader curriculum overhaul next year.

But yanking students away from studying slides and lab notes to take time for themselves is a challenge, Christina Puchalski, director of the GW Institute for Spirituality and Health, said.

About 50 students so far have participated in classes or sessions in exercise or health offered by the Himmelfarb Health Sciences Library, the library reported.

“If you’re a student and you have to pass a certain number of exams, that will take priority over taking care of yourself. Unless you can see that taking care of yourself will help you overall,” Puchalski, who sits on the committee, said.

Alexandra Gomes, associate director of the library, said the library has for years seen pressure mounting for students, particularly around exams.

“Students set up camp in the library as we get closer to the end of the semester and the exams, and you can see the pressure build up in the students,” Gomes said.

The administration is also spending more on health and wellness. Linda Lang, an instructor, has taught yoga classes for two years and said this is the first year she is a paid staff member.

Last year was the first time the yoga course was offered as a 1.5-credit elective that included nearly three dozen students.

“What people seem to enjoy most is being in a place with other students to talk about what stress is really like and how it’s weighing on their time,” Lang said.

Third-year medical student Rosa Liu said medical school could at times be “a toxic environment” and that first- and second-year students in particular need a mental break from stressing over slides and notes.

“A lot of people feel competition within themselves and are pushing themselves to do better. Yoga can bring that down a little bit and say it’s okay to accept yourselves,” she said.

The efforts are a quick-fix on a nationwide epidemic at medical schools: rising stress levels and burnout rates. One-third of medical students said their life-work balance was out of whack and 15 percent said their lives were “somewhat bad” or “as bad as it can be,” according to a study last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The outlook for residencies could still get worse. A report last week by the Association of American Medical Colleges stoked fears that a cap on the number of federally funded residencies would limit the next generation of students looking for medical training, creating even more competition.

Over the last five years, about 92 to 98 percent of GW’s medical students have been placed into residencies – the stage after medical school during which aspiring doctors work for three to seven years in hospitals or medical centers. That rate is slightly better than how students have fared nationally, but their chances will likely grow slimmer over the next decade because of the federal cap. It would grow even more competitive for the majority of GW students who opt for specialized, competitive fields like radiology or anesthesiology, which draw higher salaries.

W. Scott Schroth, associate dean for administration, said while the school has had success in placing graduates into top residencies and that hospitals likely will step in to bolster funding, it “doesn’t mean we’re feeling comfortable about this.”

“There’s still great concern amongst us that this may present a problem for our graduates,” he said.

To boost career services, the school has added required individual advising, workshops and alumni interactions and “beefed up” programming for specialty student groups, he said. It will launch a new website for the specialty advising program this week.

Cory Weinberg contributed to this report.

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