Medical School passes new policies to reduce student burnout

All UMN Medical School faculty must follow the new policies by fall 2021.

Emma Lierdahl, a second year medical student, utilizes the bio-medical library in Diehl Hall on Wednesday, Nov. 13.  After completing her undergraduate and master’s degrees, Lierdahl was employed by the University to conduct cancer research, a focus she intends to maintain in her future practice.

Kamaan Richards

Emma Lierdahl, a second year medical student, utilizes the bio-medical library in Diehl Hall on Wednesday, Nov. 13. After completing her undergraduate and master’s degrees, Lierdahl was employed by the University to conduct cancer research, a focus she intends to maintain in her future practice.

Natalie Cierzan

The University of Minnesota Medical School passed several new polices last month to prevent students from being overworked. 

The Academic Workload Task Force — composed of students, administrators and faculty from the Medical School — proposed policies that will be in effect by fall 2021. These policies include a 60-hour student workload maximum, level designations for classes and more schedule flexibility. 

“What we are trying to do is create a curriculum that will optimize a student’s ability to develop into a great physician. Part of that involves paying attention to issues that have traditionally led to burnout or inattention to ones’ wellness,” said Robert Englander, associate dean for Undergraduate Medical Education.

Under the new policies, students will work a maximum of 60 hours a week. Previously, students averaged an 80-hour work week, Englander said. 

Medical School classes will require a level one or two designation. Level one classes require in-person attendance, while attendance for level two classes is optional. Time between classes will be reduced to allow students more schedule flexibility. Before, classes had long gaps between them, which made the days longer.

Research suggests the amount of short-term memory used up by information storage, known as cognitive load, is a problem in the pre-clinical phase of medical education, Englander said. 

When someone takes in too much information, that information either becomes jumbled or lost.Because of this, Medical School faculty wanted to determine if a student’s workload was reasonable or not, Englander said.

“It would both allow them to acquire and apply the incredible amount of knowledge that is required to be a physician and also respect their ability to attend to their wellness and hopefully mitigate their burnout,” he said.

Burnout is a problem in the medical field across the country, Englander said. It affects students, residents, faculty and practitioners.

One of the theories surrounding burnout is that the workload feels unattainable to students, said Anne Pereira, a member of the task force and the assistant dean of curriculum in the Medical School. 

That’s why the task force began developing a plan to emphasize student wellness and balance, she said, also saying that success hinges on communication between faculty about the amount of work they are assigning to students.

“Each individual course doesn’t have a lot of access to see what other courses are asking of the students,” she said.

According to Pereira, Medical School faculty need to be on board with a central structure that oversees workloads.

Student voices are a pivotal part of the task force, Pereira said. They help create the policies that affect themselves and faculty in the medical school.

Medical student Tobias Donlon said he became involved in the task force because he felt overwhelmed by the workload he experienced. 

“I think it’s kind of just barely doable if everything is going well. People run into challenges if something isn’t going the way it needs to go,” he said.

But the new policy is not just beneficial to students, Donlon said. 

“I think part of it is helpful [to] instructors to kind of help them identify the most high-yield material to cover,” he said. 

Medical School faculty do not want to reduce how much content they are teaching because of the content’s importance, but instead are trying to teach more effectively, Donlon said.

Medical student Emma Leirdahl agreed that classes were teaching too much content at once.

“All of the information is important, but at the current state it’s just so much,” she said. 

University medical students want to be the best clinicians they can and, by reducing workload, problems like burnout and overload will be reduced too, Leirdahl said. 

“I think [the Medical School is] doing a really good job in listening to us,” she said. “They’re really getting on the right track here.”