The Effect of “Burning Out” and Secondary Traumatic Stress in Medical Students

by Jenna Mallon (’18)

Fig. 1: Burnout and stress are common occurrences for medical students, yet there is still not enough education available in order for them to deal with these issues.

Burnout in medical education has been a focus of study due to the negative consequences it can have on student performance. Secondary traumatic stress, caused by exposure to traumatic events, is studied less but is still prevalent in the medical field.

Dr. David A. Richardson, from the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Henry Ford Hospital/Wayne State University, and a team of researchers looked to the determine how empathy and self-compassion correlates with burnout, secondary traumatic stress, and compassion satisfaction in medical students and residents. Residents at the Henry Ford Health System and third year medical students at Wayne State University were recruited through email. Recruits were asked to complete the Professional Quality of Life Scale (for burnout, secondary traumatic stress, and compassion satisfaction), Neff’s Self-Compassion Scale, and the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (the empathic concern and personal distress subscales). In total, 307 students were recruited, but only 88 of them provided sufficient data for their results to be included in the study. The results were as follows: 23.9% reported high burnout, 27.3% reported high secondary traumatic stress, 30% reported low self-compassion, and 30.7% reported decreased compassion satisfaction. There were no significant differences in results from third year medical students when compared to the results from the residents. Through linear regressions, the study was able to conclude that low levels of empathic concern and self-compassion predicted burnout, while personal distress was correlated with the occurrence of secondary traumatic stress.

This study has limitations due to its small sample size, so further research involving larger sample sizes is necessary. The study does support the fact that more emphasis needs to be placed on teaching medical students how to handle their own feelings of stress, failure, fear, etc. Taking preemptive steps, such as mandating therapies and courses geared toward compassion and empathy, may help to decrease burnout and secondary traumatic stress.



  1. D. Richardson, et. al., Self-Compassion and Empathy: Impact on Burnout and Secondary Traumatic Stress in Medical Training. Open Journal of Epidemiology 6, 167- 172 (2016). doi: 10.4236/ojepi.2016.63017
  2. Image retrieved from:

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