Will Tomorrow’s Medical Students Ever Practice Medicine?

by Arthur Lazarus, MD, MBA
November 26, 2023
In a recent essay , I marveled at the qualities that will set apart tomorrow’s physicians from previous generations. And while everything I wrote I believed to be true, I suppose I neglected a major concern, a big blind spot as it were. In order to become clinicians, medical students must first enter practice. That seems obvious, but a recent report gives reason to pause and reflect on medical students’ experiences and career trajectories.
The report, “Clinician of the Future: 2023 Education Edition,” was released by the health science and journal publisher Elsevier in October. In all, 2,212 medical and nursing students from 91 countries were surveyed between April and May 2023. Findings also included two roundtable sessions with stakeholders and faculty in the U.S. and the U.K.
A quarter of aspiring physicians in the U.S. — double the percentage in the rest of the world — said they were considering quitting their studies, with many expressing concerns about their mental health and how they can find a satisfying balance between the demands of school and life.
Among the U.S. surveyed medical students, 54% said they were concerned about their mental health, 57% expressed concerns about experiencing burnout, and 65% were worried about how clinician shortages would affect them. An unrelated 2023 survey showed that medical students have higher rates of burnout than physicians and residents.
The most striking statistic, however, was that 54% of medical students globally — 61% in the U.S. — said they viewed their current studies as a stepping stone to broader careers in healthcare that don’t involve treating patients. The main career paths students were interested in were public health management, research, and business consulting. The high percentage of students considering their studies as stepping stones to administrative and support roles was surprising, as those sorts of decisions are typically seen later in medical careers.
The question in my mind is whether the pressures of medical school are pushing students to rethink their careers, or whether there is something about these students or their education that makes nonclinical careers attractive to them? Of course, both a “push” and a “pull” could simultaneously exist, but the study did not specifically address this question. It seems to me that students who are genuinely interested in alternatives to practicing medicine will find greater fulfillment compared with those who simply want to escape the stress of future practice.