Study Finds One-Third Of Med Students Abuse Alcohol

Medical students who are young, single and in debt are hitting the sauce at the expense of their own health

Mar 16, 2016 at 3:03 PM ET

Not that we’ve ever tried it ourselves—but medical school sounds hard. So it isn’t terribly surprising that even industrious bookworms would want to blow off steam with a couple of drinks. But a new study in the journal Academic Medicine suggests that some students are taking it a bit too far, and that medical students may be more prone to alcohol abuse than their peers not attending medical school, especially if they’re young, single and in debt.

“Our findings clearly show there is reason for concern,” Dr. Liselotte Dyrbye, internist at the Mayo Clinic and coauthor on the paper, said in a press statement. “We recommend institutions pursue a multifaceted solution to address related issues with burnout, the cost of medical education and alcohol abuse.”

More Med Students Recount How They Watched Doctors Abuse Patients

Prior studies have found that medical students are more likely to use prescription stimulants to enhance their academic performances, and that physicians are as likely or more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol than the general population. A lot of that probably has to do with the incredible pressures of medical school, arguably the most competitive academic endeavor out there, and the unending demands of medical practice.

For this new study, researchers at the Mayo Clinic surveyed more than 4,400 medical students and found that more than one third suffered from clinical alcohol abuse or dependence. That’s an incredibly high number, given that the national average for people within that age group who are not in medical school is about 16 percent, and the national average for practicing physicians is more like 13 percent.

Researchers found strong links between medical students who abused alcohol and those who were experiencing academic “burnouts” and feelings of emotional exhaustion. They also found that younger, unmarried medical students were more likely to abuse alcohol, and that debt may be playing a role. Now, debt is no reason to hit the bottle but, to be fair to the medical students, physicians graduating with a medical degree in 2014 had an average of $180,000 in educational debt.

“The escalating cost of medical school needs to be more effectively addressed, especially if health care reform and reimbursement changes lead to reduced earning potential in some specialty areas,” the authors write. “If educational debt continues to rise in the face of lower earnings, the psychological toll of educational debt may become even more severe.”

Regardless, the study suggests alcohol abuse among medical students is higher than it statistically should be, which means the current system is putting us at risk of graduating doctors who became alcoholics in medical school and never stopped. No one wants that. The authors stress that more studies are necessary to identify more risk factors for alcohol abuse among medical students. But, in the mean time, there are some changes medical schools could make to reduce the rates of alcohol abuse among their students.

“A multifaceted approach to reducing alcohol use, ameliorating burnout, and reducing the cost of medical education is needed. Schools should put into place student wellness curricula to help students understand the prevalence and consequences of mental health problems among physicians,” the authors write. “Our study provides further evidence that distress among medical students warrants serious attention.”