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Mending the Healers 

Brewer Eberly

Young doctors are suffering from a crisis of meaning. Can med school still offer moral formation?

What does the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a “break” that ripples above some deadly disease? Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay?.... And doesn’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?

— Mark Twain

I started medical school in 2013. That same year, David Bornstein reported in the New York Times that 84 percent of doctors thought that medicine was in decline and more than half would not recommend medicine as a career for their children. My own father, a family physician, urged me not to follow in his footsteps. I’m now a family physician myself with sons of my own, and I wonder what I will tell them.

Medicine is extraordinarily difficult to enter, yet more and more of today’s new physicians seem ready to exit. “Burnout” is the leading ­diagnosis — discussed ad nauseam everywhere from JAMA to BuzzFeed. This phenomenon is characterized by emotional fatigue, depersonalization, poor performance, low self-esteem, “moral injury” (originally a description of soldiers’ experience of war), and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment. A wave-making 2015 study from the Mayo Clinic suggested that 54 percent of physicians experienced at least one burnout symptom. By comparison, the burnout rate among the U.S. nonmedical population has remained relatively stable around 30 percent. Doctors are at a higher risk for burnout even after adjusting for factors like work hours....

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Brewer Eberly is a family medicine resident at AnMed Health in Anderson, South Carolina, and a Paul Ramsey Fellow at the Center for Bioethics and Culture.