A magazine for friends of the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

Put Your Oxygen Mask on First


Meet the Medical School’s chief wellness officer.

Across the nation, medical students are more likely to experience burnout and depression than peers on different career paths. Nearly half of all US med students report symptoms of burnout, including emotional exhaustion, feelings of detachment toward patients, and a low sense of personal accomplishment—and it can persist into residency.

The Warren Alpert Medical School appointed its first chief wellness officer, Kelly Holder, PhD, to confront that challenge. Holder wants to promote a healthy environment for students and help them develop lifelong skills to maintain physical and mental well-being during training and beyond.

Before coming to Brown—where she’s also an assistant director for Counseling and Psychological Services—Holder directed the Office for Professional Mental Health at the Penn State College of Medicine and Hershey Medical Center.

There she started a mental health service for medical and graduate students that eventually expanded to treat residents, faculty, and physicians. Holder talked to us about the importance of self-care for those training to provide medical care for others, and how her position can help to support future physicians.

How do you envision your role?

Mental and emotional wellness is essential to complete health. We simply cannot ignore this fact. I view my role as another way to serve the students, faculty, and physicians in Brown’s medical school, and aid them in not just meeting their immediate self-care needs but also creating and developing plans that can help them learn more about how to take care of themselves in a way that’s sustainable for a profession that demands a lot.

What is the significance of wellness for doctors-in-training?

It’s essential to teach medical students how to create boundaries and help them learn good wellness habits so that they can continue those practices throughout their careers. The physician’s inclination is to focus on patients and put their own health last. But that’s what leads to burnout and causes talented, caring professionals to leave the field. We need to step in early and show medical students that in order to sustain a medical career over the long term and give their best to their patients, it’s critical that they figure out what they need to stay healthy and happy. On a broader scale, if we can teach these concepts to medical students and help them adhere to them throughout residency and after becoming attending physicians, we can aid with improving the culture of wellness in medicine.

What are some of the challenges in promoting wellness in a medical school?

It’s not helpful to simply make self-care another item on a very long list of things physicians should accomplish on their own. A challenge for wellness officers in any health system is figuring out how to evoke widespread change and make wellness more accessible and realistic for medical students, residents, and physicians. How can we be at the right tables with the right people to make the big-picture changes that need to happen to help people at all levels?

What should every first-year medical student know about protecting their own well-being throughout training?

This is going to sound simple, but they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help. The types of students who end up in medical school may not have ever found themselves in a situation where they’ve needed assistance, so when they do, the feeling can be scary or embarrassing. But there are so many resources available for medical students who are struggling. No one has to go through it alone.


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