Well-Being and Vocational Discernment for the Health Professions

A series of posts about a collaborative project at the University of Dayton to develop courses, programs, and opportunities for undergraduate vocational discernment in the health professions, including a first-year course, “Discover Health and Medicine.”

In his August 2022 article in The New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, surgeon general of the United States, discusses the mental and physical challenges that health professionals face. He cites several factors that contribute to these challenges and states that “we need to build a culture that supports well-being.” From his perspective, “culture change must start in our training institutions, where the seeds of well-being can be planted early.”

Interview with Dr. Vivek H. Murthy

I believe that one of the significant challenges in working with students who want to enter the health professions is helping them understand the sacrifices that they will make and the personal and moral difficulties that they will likely face. As I think about developing vocational discernment opportunities for undergraduate students who intend to work in the health professions, I find myself asking the following questions:

  • How do we talk to our students about pursuing this vocation while recognizing that individuals in the health professions often struggle with burnout and mental health concerns, and sometimes with moral injury?
  • How do we help our students understand that pursuing this kind of service to others and to the common good may be personally satisfying and bring meaning to their lives, but it can, and often will, require personal and financial sacrifice?
  • How do we present the challenges that come with a vocation in the health professions realistically without diminishing students’ callings, motivations, and ideals?

These concerns are particularly acute when we read about and experience the high numbers of students who are already facing mental health obstacles. Our students who are questioning a vocational path in the health professions or who are facing challenges to their self-esteem and identities as they struggle through foundational science and math coursework may need even more intentional, consistent, or extended discussions about these topics.

When we think about vocational discernment in the health professions, we must ask ourselves, “What does it mean to be ‘called’ to a vocation in the health professions, in which you hold another person’s life and livelihood in your hands?” By asking this question, we are required to consider not only the knowledge and skills that are necessary but also what kind of emotional awareness and regulation might be needed.

There are numerous ways to introduce these ideas to our students and to provide them with tools to address the challenges that are inherent in these vocations. First, those of us at liberal arts and faith-based institutions can lean into the foundational humanities and social science coursework that our students complete, which often promote emotional intelligence. It may be more difficult for those at universities that do not require as many classes in these disciplines. No matter the type of institution in which we work, we can collaborate with our colleagues who teach in the humanities to identify guest speakers, readings, additional coursework, or experiences that introduce our students to a broader medical humanities perspective. 

Second, introducing concepts related to well-being as part of vocational discernment is critical as students begin their journeys toward health professions. Persistence, empathy, curiosity, self-efficacy, and emotional regulation are just some of the social and emotional skills in children that have been linked to academic and life success, as well as to physical and mental health and well-being. Scholars have advocated for emotional intelligence training during medical school for more than a decade. Although effective training models for graduate students and health care professionals exist, such as The Healer’s Art course, we need something similar for undergraduates. We need to weave these concepts effectively into undergraduate education for the health professions. Incorporating these concepts into the classroom can equip students with the tools they need to maintain their mental health and well-being before they encounter the stresses of graduate/professional school or the workplace.

As I work with my colleagues to develop our Discover Health & Medicine track for those students who are struggling to discern whether they have a calling in the health professions or not, we are becoming more mindful of finding opportunities to talk to our students about the relationship between social and emotional skills and well-being. We welcome suggestions and conversation about best practices and effective programs, particularly for those students who are still in the discovery phase of vocational discernment.

No matter what means we use, service is always a work of the heart. There are times when the power of science is so seductive that we may come to feel that all that is required to serve others is to get our science right, our diagnosis, our treatment. But science can never serve unless it is first translated by people into a work of the heart.

Rachel Naomi Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging

Sabrina M. Neeley is the associate dean for clinical, global, and experiential learning in the School of Education and Health Sciences at the University of Dayton. She is also an associate professor in the Department of Health and Sport Science, for which she developed and now oversees the community health concentration. Her work focuses on curriculum and program development in the health professions. For more posts by Sabrina, click here.

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