Faculty Health in Academic Medicine: A Book Review
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By Peter Mittwede, University of Mississippi School of Medicine

Think about this sentence written by Craig Irvine of Columbia University - "The medical academy’s primary ethical imperative may be to care for others, but this imperative is meaningless if divorced from the imperative to care for oneself." This statement is a fancy way of saying what we hear frequently. That is, that we need to take care of ourselves before we can take care of others. But as highly motivated trainees in the fields of research and medicine, do we really take this advice to heart? We should.

Faculty Health Cover ImageCover Image: Faculty Health in Academic Medicine
Photo by Peter Mittwede

The data are unequivocal. Physicians and researchers have a greater incidence of anxiety, burnout, depression, and suicide than the general population. It is for this reason that faculty members at the University of Texas at Houston and M.D. Anderson Cancer Center collaborated in putting together an important book titled, "Faculty Health in Academic Medicine: Physicians, Scientists, and the Pressures of Success." Written by a number of authors who range from being physician-scientists to psychologists to behavioral scientists, this volume has a distinctly academic feel to it. However, this does not detract from its readability or from its important messages, which include the following: it is exceedingly challenging to be a physician or scientist (or both!) in this day and age, we are not coping as well as we should with the difficulties, we need to do better, both to perform our jobs more effectively and to be personally fulfilled and satisfied, and finally, there is help available.

As a group, physicians and scientists strive to live up to nearly unattainable professional ideals. Additionally, standards are set extremely high for the attainment of promotion and success, and many academic centers do not do enough to realize the personhood and the predisposition to burnout of these employees. The authors of this book stress that institutions need more flexible faculty structures (e.g. part-time options), updated approaches to mentoring and career development (particularly for younger faculty), and more supportive departmental heads.

Throughout the book, the important point is made that there is a strong stigma associated with mental illness amongst medical professionals, so physicians and scientists who experience depression and/or severe anxiety are hesitant to admit that anything is wrong or to ask for help. This mindset must change on both ends if we hope to change the status quo. In the past decade, several institutions have begun implementing faculty health programs that have been tremendously beneficial for those professionals who have come forward and sought aid. However, participation in these programs needs to increase.

As trainees pursuing careers as physician-scientists, we are generally as motivated and ambitious as a group of people can be However, we need to be fully aware that life will not get any easier for us in the future. Our careers will be laden with stress and pressure, and it is important for us to not to only lead lives that engender psychological, physical, and emotional health, but also to be aware that assistance is available, and be willing to seek help when we need it.