Medical students face greater risk of burnout and are more likely to abandon their careers due to work pressures, a recent study of UAE undergraduates has found.
Researchers at UAE University collected data from 385 medical students across the country to assess the effects of training for a healthcare career that can take up to seven years.
Students completed a questionnaire and responded to the Oldenburg Burnout Inventory (OLBI) that measures physical and mental exhaustion.
Results showed that more than a fifth of students (21.6 per cent) were diagnosed with a mental illness during their studies, while 77 per cent screened positively for burnout.
It also found 81 per cent were disengaged, and 95 per cent reported feeling exhausted.
Although the medical profession is known to be more stressful than other careers, experts said UAE students felt greater strain than elsewhere.
Curriculum can be 'overwhelming'
“Research studies have indicated 37 per cent prevalence of burnout and stress in medical students worldwide — but this number tends to be higher in the UAE with figures reaching 75 per cent,” said Dr Shweta Misra, a clinical psychologist at the Priory Wellbeing Centre in Dubai.
“Stress rates are typically higher in medical students versus non-medical students, due to persistent imbalance between work demands and resources.
“Medical students spend long hours studying for exams that will determine their future.
“The medical curriculum is not simple and the stress of trying to comprehend the complex material can become overwhelming.”
Burnout is a familiar problem across the Gulf.
A recent survey by the McKinsey Health Institute (MHI) found two thirds of GCC residents experienced poor mental health and well-being.
Residents of Saudi Arabia had the highest instances of distress compared with the three other countries surveyed — UAE, Qatar and Kuwait — as well as the highest number of people reporting depression, anxiety and burnout.
Typical stress triggers for students, such as leaving home and losing contact with family and friends, were exacerbated by a medical degree, experts said.
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A heightened sense of responsibility in saving lives and not making mistakes even in the early stages of medical school is a common cause of anxiety for some.
Dr Sara Nourmahal, 27, from Iran, studied at the Crimean Medical State University for seven years, six of those were in medical school.
“During the training and internship in particular we face considerable challenges, mainly due to the workload,” said Dr Nourmahal, now in a one-year medical internship at a private hospital in Abu Dhabi which cost her Dh30,000.
“We worked in 12-hour shifts, often overnight, so the stress of dealing with uncertainty is real.
“When you are a student you are guided by the system, once you start practising you understand you are dealing with real lives every day.”
Uncertainty adds to anxiety
Dr Nourmahal said her biggest concern is where to go next once her internship is over.
“I studied in Russia, and the city where I studied is now under sanctions so I can’t go back there to train as a general surgeon, and it is very difficult to get into a residency programme here,” she said.
“It can be overwhelming and challenging, that is a fact.
“Stress can be healthy when it is motivating and keeps us aware, but it can become unhealthy.
“When I was in my third year at university, two juniors took their own lives.
“That was a real wake up call for the university so they paid more attention to mental health.”
Once qualified, the pressure of seeking work is added to postgraduate stress of a medical student who has usually accrued considerable costs.
High fees and long hours
Dr Ola Yassir Jassim, 25, from Iraq, graduated in 2020 from Gulf Medical University in Ajman after completing a five-year course in dentistry, and a year-long internship that she paid around Dh65,000 for. She is now in full time work at the Canadian Specialist Hospital.
“Each year cost around Dh110-120,000 in fees to study, so it was expensive,” she said.
“There was a lot of pressure on everything.
“I found studying in a group was a good way to manage stress, but some found it hard so became isolated.”
Dr Sara Al Himairi, from Canadian Specialist Hospital, Dubai, is an orthodontist completing a Master's degree after graduating from Ajman University.
“It has not been an easy time as I am also working part time in a private clinic,” she said.
“I try to juggle all aspects of my life, so pre-planning is very important so I can fit in my studies and exams.
“It is doable, as long as I take breaks — especially if I’m having a stressful week.
“Sometimes I feel my brain can’t take it any more.”
Dr Al Himairi, from Iraq, works six days week, with only Fridays off and combines her working day with an hour or two of study each evening.
“I need to sleep before an exam or presentation so I tend to stop at 12am, some colleagues keep working until 3am,” she said.
“Most days I am exhausted and when there are exams I can get anxious. There is a lot of disengagement.
“During my training programme there were eight people at the start, but only three have seen it through to a career.
“Some have left and gone into a career in social media or marketing instead.”