Medical students turn to peer-support groups for assistance: A Q&A

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School can be overwhelming, especially medical school. But Stanford Medicine offers many different forms of mental health support, including a peer-to-peer support program for medical students called Ears 4 Peers. To learn more, I spoke with Dina Wang-Kraus, MD, a Stanford psychiatry and behavioral sciences resident and co-founder of the program.

What inspired you to start the Ears 4 Peers program?

“In 2012, I was a first-year medical student and I was noticing that a significant number of my classmates were experiencing compassion fatigue and burnout. We were encouraged to reach out to the counseling and psychology services but there was some hesitancy, either from busy schedules or anxieties surrounding stigma. So, Norma Villalon, MD, and I decided to found a peer-to-peer support program. I started a similar program in college at Johns Hopkins, called A Place to Talk.

The hope was to have near-peers — those who were just walking in your shoes — provide support. Our goal was to bridge the distance students often feel when in a competitive, challenging situation. We may have been adults in our mid-twenties to forties, but we were only in the infancy of our training.

Rebecca Smith-Coggins, MD, is our faculty adviser and leader. From day one, she’s believed in our cause.”

What are some issues the program addresses?

“We receive calls regarding issues like academic stress, interpersonal relationship conflicts, imposter syndrome, intimate partner violence, Stanford Duck syndrome and suicidal thoughts. We also receive calls from students feeling lonely, disconnected and homesick, especially around finals, holidays and medical board exams. And some students call hoping to be referred for additional support.”

How are Ears 4 Peers mentors selected and trained?

“Ears 4 Peers mentors are nominated by their peers or self-nominated. They complete an application to tell us more about themselves, what draws them to this type of work and what they hope to gain from the experience.

We’re very lucky to have the support of Alejandro Martinez, PhD, the Associate Dean of Students for the Stanford undergraduate campus. He and his team designed a curriculum specifically for Stanford School of Medicine.”

What role do you play in the program now?

“As a resident, I’ve transitioned out of being an official Ears 4 Peers mentor but I continue to remain actively involved in near-peer mentoring for medical students. Two years ago as an intern in psychiatry, I worked with Jessi Gold, MD, to inaugurate Stanford’s  Medical Student Reflection Groups. Each group is made up of four to 10 medical students who commit to joining for six to 12 months. We meet every other week, and groups are facilitated by psychiatry residents trained in group therapy and psychotherapy. As resident physicians, we remain near-peers; however, we’re able to facilitate a different kind of support and personal growth given our psychiatry training.

Stanford students are welcome to reach out to me at sdwangkraus@stanford.edu to learn more.”

What advise can you give medical students and residents?

“I recall medical school to be an exhilarating time, but it also felt like I was drinking from Niagara Falls, one cup at a time. There were times when I felt overwhelmed and even burnt out.

We see a lot of beauty and humility in medicine, but there are also times when we see a lot of tragedy and suffering. Having peer-support, knowing that I was not alone, was empowering and liberating — and it continues to be.”

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

Educating the next generation of surgeons: A Q&A

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Research shows that many medical students view surgeons as intimidating, competitive and predominantly male workaholics — and these stereotypes can deter students from a surgical career. As a result, there has been a relative drop in applications for surgical residencies.

James Lau, MD, a clinical professor of surgery and the director of the Goodman Surgical Educational Center at Stanford, is working to combat this trend by spearheading educational initiatives. I caught up with him recently.

Why is there a declining interest in surgical careers?

“Medical students are becoming more sophisticated in choosing specialties, and a lot likely has to do with life style issues. I think there’s a misconception that surgeons work all the time and can’t have a work-life balance.

Medical schools are also getting shorter — some are even going to three years and some schools are emphasizing primary care — so students aren’t exposed early on to surgery. So we’ve built a mentorship component into our SURG 205 surgical training course to give first- and second-year medical students at Stanford the opportunity to go into the operating room and learn what surgery is like. And it sparks the flame and shows them more accurately the collegiality and dedication of those in surgery.”

What do your students learn in SURG 205?

“Previously the students would have to find a mentor and negotiate the system on their own to get the training to be allowed in the operating room. This course brings it all together —training them on technical skills, facilitating finding them a mentor, experiencing one or two operations and hopefully building an ongoing mentor relationship with an attending surgeon.

We want them to participate in the OR, so we train them on technical skills — from the simple skills like knot-tying and basic suturing to performing a full case on a cadaver. As we explained in a recent paper, we also teach them nontechnical skills, such as coaching them on how to get along with the operating team, so they feel more comfortable when they go to the OR.”

What other educational efforts are underway?

“Surgery residents and surgeons have to know more than technical skills to do operations. They also have to work well together in teams in different settings. They have to be able to interact well with patients and make clinical decisions. And the techniques are changing all the time. So we provide a skills and simulation center with a curriculum — to help teach and mentor these skills.

We also must train inter-professionally in surgery. The nurses, anesthesiologists and surgeons all work together but traditionally train separately, which makes no sense. In a new program, we’re having monthly simulations in the operating room with surgeons, surgery residents, anesthesiologists, anesthesiology residents, OR assistants, scrub technicians, circulating nurses, and anyone else that would normally be in the operating room. We want people to understand that everyone has a role and should speak up in crisis. We’re trying to change the culture by training together.

We also have a resident as educator program, because our residents are automatically teachers and mentors to the medical students. To be a good teacher, you have to be a constant learner and create a safe learning environment. A good teacher is a good communicator and their learners include the patients.”

Why did you recently get a Master’s Degree in Health Professions Education?

“I oversee a two-year surgical education fellowship that has surgery residents teach, create curricula and evaluate the work that they do in the clerkships and residency education programs here at Stanford. Our goal is to prepare them to be thoughtful program directors, helping to make them the next generation’s education leaders in surgery. As part of the program, we encourage them to complete a master’s degree in education. To be a mentor for them, I decided to ‘walk the walk’ and get a masters degree in education. After a decade in education, I wanted to inform myself in the formal discipline of education to become more effective in the programs that we create for learners here at Stanford.”

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

What history can teach us about medicine: A Q&A with a Stanford medical student

Photo by Shivam Verma

When I think of history, I think of the famous quote: “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” This is often brought up in reference to politics, but what role does history play in science and medicine? To learn more, I spoke with Julie Barzilay, a second-year medical student at Stanford who has studied the history of science.

How did you first become interested in the philosophy and history of science?

“As an undergraduate at Harvard, I took an incredible course on the history of Darwin and evolutionary theory that introduced me to the world of history and philosophy of science. It was fascinating and powerful to think about scientific knowledge as something that was created by humans in particular contexts and as something that was constantly being evaluated and re-imagined. I was especially drawn to the history and philosophy of medicine, where complex issues of identity, power, stigma, hope, fear and biopsychosocial dynamics all seemed to intersect. Once I began thinking like a historian, I could never see science and medicine the same way again — and I think that is a very good thing.”

How can this enrich the everyday practice of science and medicine?

“All knowledge has a history. Analyzing the ways that humans constantly create and revise their understanding of scientific processes makes us more innovative and critical when it comes to challenging assumptions in our fields. I also believe that thinking historically and sociologically builds empathy. Sociologists, historians, philosophers and anthropologists of science have made us think hard about concepts like the power dynamics in the doctor-patient relationship, or how a patient’s identity changes when given a diagnosis. And thinking about medicine in these terms adds so much depth to the care a physician can give a patient.”

What motivates you to still pursue this interest as a busy medical student?

“I think history is incredibly colorful, fun and important. I am also curious about the history of the profession I’m joining, and often find the questions that excite me the most live at the intersection of history, ethics and sociology of medicine.

I want to share these frameworks and passions with my peers. This is what motivated me to develop the upcoming lunch series on the history of science and medicine, which I created with the support of the Biomedical Ethics and Medical Humanities Scholarly Concentration, particularly Audrey Shafer, MD, and my advisor for this course Laurel Braitman, PhD. The class will introduce students to an array of talented historians, sociologists, anthropologists and bioethicists at Stanford as we rotate through a new speaker each Thursday at 12:30 pm. I hope the speakers inspire students to think historically and ask tough questions about our assumptions in all scientific fields.”

What are your career plans?

“After completing my MPhil in history and philosophy of science at the University of Cambridge and finishing my premed courses in a post-baccalaureate program at Johns Hopkins University, I worked at ABC News as a production associate in their medical unit in New York. I love communicating about health and medicine, and hope to integrate health communication into my career one day. In terms of clinical practice, I am most interested in pediatrics, but am open to exploring other fields during my upcoming clerkships. I hope to teach, write and practice, in some combination.”

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.