HealthJune 16, 2020

Community service for medical school students: An opportunity to combat burnout

By: Marilyn Chau, MD

Stop thinking of community service for medical school students as an extra. Here’s how to get the most out of a volunteer program.

Finding time for yourself while in medical school can be difficult. Between tests and studying, self-care can fall through the cracks. Finding time for others can feel even trickier - at least at first. But community service for medical school students is actually an excellent way to help combat burnout. How? It takes your focus off your studies and successes (or failures) and redirects it toward helping others. And despite what you may think, time away from your books and clinical rotations can also be a key way to build up your residency application.

Particularly during your first two years of medical school, extracurricular activities tend to be few and far between. Volunteering is a great way to connect with your community - an important connection, as you'll be serving them by providing direct medical care in your MS3 and MS4 years - while also helping you use your talents and time outside of school.

Here's how to get involved with community service for medical students and make the most the experience.

Use your school's resources

Getting involved in a community service program doesn't have to mean spending a lot of time researching what programs are offered in your community. Many medical schools already actively participate in community programs; often these activities are carried out through student interest groups, and finding an interest group that appeals to you can be a great way to find service opportunities you'll enjoy.

For instance, I knew that I was interested in specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation, and through the PM&R interest group, I connected with volunteer activities for rehab-related services in my community. Specifically, I found myself volunteering in adaptive sports triathlons and free medical checkups for dancers, two areas I loved working in as a recreational endurance runner and former dancer. For my medical school classmates (and housemates) interested in OB-GYN as a specialty, a volunteer program for educating pregnant teens at a local high school about maternal health awareness was an ideal opportunity. Another housemate, a primary care physician in the making, found her volunteer niche in free community health clinics and homeless shelters through the family medicine interest group.

Work in an area that interests you

While the above examples were a great way to find established volunteer opportunities in specialty-specific areas within the community, remember that service activities don't have to be limited to medicine. Working in an area that interests you, whether or not it's a medicine-related project, is key to truly being plugged into your community. The best volunteer opportunities for med students are the ones that they love.

While I'm passionate about rehab-related healthcare, I also love to read; becoming a literacy advocate and adult-literacy tutor through my local library felt like a natural fit. While this community service activity had little to do with my medical education, I chose to list it on my ERAS® application. It actually ended up being one of the most frequently discussed topics during my residency interviews, despite my other specialty-specific activities. It's normal to have interests outside of medicine, and volunteer programs can be an excellent way to pursue them.

Recognize service as a balancing act

Finally, as with all activities, know that community service for medical school is a balancing act. Do yourself a favor and carefully calculate the number of hours you can reasonably commit to volunteer activities throughout a week or month. Your time for service commitments will likely be a lot more predictable during your MS1 and MS2 years, since your schedule may change every four to 10 weeks during clinical rotations. You'll never have more than 24 hours in a day, and the amount of material you need to cover when studying for your exams won't decrease. Don't overcommit yourself to activities if you can't realistically allocate time in your schedule for them.

Allow community service work to be a way to prevent burnout instead of contributing to it. Of course, putting too many commitments on your schedule while taking away your needed rest time will likely overwhelm you in the long run. But dedicating a reasonable amount of time to activities that you genuinely love will recharge you, leaving you refreshed and ready to take on your other tasks.

Marilyn Chau, MD
Lippincott® Medicine
Lippincott is a leading international medical publisher of professional health information for practitioners, faculty, residents, students, and healthcare institutions with a full suite of essential medical products, from books and journals to digital solutions.
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