The Use of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy as a Method to Improve Self Care in Medical Students

Commentary: Medical Student Distress: A Call to Action

Research has indicated that medical students tend to be more depressed than others their own age, which may have professional consequences. For example, a decline in mental health could have adverse effects on students’ levels of empathy and professionalism, and it could lead to burnout or fatigue.

A study at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine required medical students to use a cognitive behavioral approach to (1) identify a behavior they wished to improve or change, (2) monitor that baseline behavior, (3) learn about recommendations for the targeted behavior, (4) set goals for themselves, (5) implement a self-improvement plan, and (6) perform a self-assessment of effectiveness and identify factors that either promoted or hindered their goals. The types of behaviors that the students identified were related to nutrition, exercise, sleep, work/study habits, and mental/emotional health. Data was later evaluated to determine (1) whether students reached their goals, (2) what factors helped or hindered success, and (3) if the students planned to apply behavioral change techniques in the future.

Results of this study indicate that just 2.6% of the students chose to focus on direct improvement of their mental/emotional health. This may be attributed to confidentiality concerns or the inexact nature of measuring improvement in this area. Following participation, however, 80% of the students felt they were healthier as a result of completing this cognitive behavioral exercise. Students also showed insight into what factors helped and hindered achievement of their goals, and more than 80% indicated that they would be inclined to use a cognitive behavioral approach to address problems in the future.

CBT has shown to be useful in helping medical students develop skills necessary to assess personal well-being and maintain solid health habits throughout their lives. By maintaining their own health via self-care methods, medical students will hopefully be able to provide better care to their patients.

Dyrbye, Liselotte N. and Shanafelt, Tait D. (2011). Commentary: Medical Student Distress: A Call to Action. Academic Medicine, 86, 801-803.