Curbing depression and suicide rates among medical students

Dustyn Williams, MD, discusses how digital learning platforms can help medical students alleviate stress and anxiety that can have detrimental effects on their mental health.

Driven by the desire to improve the lives of others, healthcare providers relinquish their time, energy and, too often, their peace of mind. Mental illness is a debilitating reality experienced by a significant number of professionals in the medical community. In particular, physicians are recognised as having considerably higher rates of depression, burnout and suicide compared to the general public—the seeds of which are often sown in medical school.

Over 27% of medical students suffer from depression and more than 11% have reported suicidal ideation. Left untreated, or inadequately addressed, this depression can contribute to detrimental psychological and physical conditions later in their careers.

Recent studies have shed light into this alarming prevalence of psychological distress experienced by medical students and the effects it can have during residency and after graduation, ranging from medical errors and miscommunication to increased rates of burnout and suicide.


Determining Risk Factors 

Medical school is a taxing and competitive experience that can induce extreme levels of stress, sleep disorders and emotional exhaustion, ultimately leading to poor academic performance. In fact, a study revealed that medical students suffering from major depressive disorder (MDD) are more likely to experience low grade point averages, receive failing grades and take a leave of absence.

Students struggle to balance intensive educational tracks and heavy clinical workloads, all the while attempting to find the time and motivation to study. These stressors can lead to burnout and serious mental health conditions that worsen as students advance in their training and move into practice.

A top factor associated with medical student-related stress has been identified as the prevalence of examinations, with approximately 60% of medical students reporting anxiety and depression during their study period. Studies have also documented the negative impacts increased exam anxiety can have on both individual and academic performance. The most common contributors to anxiety levels are the lack of strategic and effective study methods, as well as failure to adequately review study materials.


Utilising Digital Learning Platforms

Various resources exist to help reduce instances of anxiety and depression among students. For example, the provision of counselling and mental health services on school campuses equips students with critical coping skills and techniques to help improve their psychological wellbeing. Students can also leverage services designed to support and improve their learning experiences, subsequently improving their levels of stress.

Another source of relief for many medical students are digital learning platforms that help alleviate exam-induced anxiety by enabling them to tailor their learning experience around their individual and educational objectives and needs. These platforms, such as OnlineMedEd, are revolutionising the academic experience by providing more effective approaches to how medical education is delivered and how students learn it. They provide teaching methods and resources that accommodate multiple learning styles, such as access to instructional videos and educational graphics, to maximise learning and retention of essential information.

By providing a variety of study strategies, digital learning platforms enhance student motivation and mastery of concepts to positively influence academic performance. Equipped with impactful tools, such as on-demand lectures, clinical vignettes, notes and flashcards, students have access to up-to-date, comprehensive information and supporting materials. These facilitate optimal preparation for critical examinations, assessments boards and clinical rotations at a student’s preferred pace. Mobile-friendly applications also help to accommodate busy schedules by offering increased flexibility for students to study at the most convenient times and learning environments.

Engaging learning platforms help students to retain more information in less time by reinforcing concepts with concise and comprehensive explanations and examples. An analysis of medical students’ perceptions of e-learning revealed that the majority believe that the use of an online educational method improved learning of clinical skills. Students who exhibited increased engagement with the solution, use of online videos and images and a deeper learning performed better in clinical skills objective structured clinical examinations.

Ultimately, online educational solutions should enable students to spend less time studying and instead enrich their educational experience by dedicating more time to the application of concepts that they have learned.

Digital learning platforms provide the educational support that instills in medical students the confidence needed to improve learning processes, reduce exam anxiety, prevent dropouts and ease psychological stresses throughout their education and as they transition to practicing physicians.

Dr. Dustyn Williams, OnlineMedEd co-founder and lead educator, is a hospitalist at Baton Rouge General Hospital, affiliated with Tulane University School of Medicine, where he serves as the clerkship director for Internal Medicine and Core Faculty for the Baton Rouge General Internal Medicine Residency Program.



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