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Student and Resident Letters to the Editor: Well-Being of Learners

Preparing Medical Schools for Tragedy

Burns, Luke

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doi: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000001748
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To the Editor:

In May 2015, two students from my school were killed and several others injured after their car was hit by a drunk driver. Five weeks later, before we had come to terms with this tragedy, our school received a second blow when a fourth-year student died by suicide. These events paralyzed staff and students alike, not only because they were so horrific but also because no protocol existed to guide us in our response.

Such schoolwide tragedies are far from rare. At the 2016 Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) National Professional Development Conference in St. Louis, Missouri, several colleagues and I from the Western region of the Office of Student Representatives presented the results of a survey investigating the prevalence of classwide tragedy in U.S. medical schools, as well as the most common strategies employed by medical school faculty and staff when responding to these tragedies.

More than one-third of the respondents described experiencing a classwide tragedy involving the death, disappearance, or major illness of a classmate or faculty member. We found that while the responses by faculty to such tragedies were typically adequate to provide comfort to grieving medical students, there existed a wide variety in the types of institutional responses and a frequent disconnect between what students felt they needed and what was actually offered.

We presented our results alongside a panel of esteemed medical school representatives, each of whom spoke about the tragedies they had faced at their own institutions. The conversation sparked a lively conversation from the audience members, many of whom had never previously had a forum to debate the merits and failures of their own institutions’ responses to tragedy.

This is a conversation we must have again, and frequently. The AAMC Committee on Student Affairs is working on a crisis management resource Web page to facilitate the creation of “tragedy response protocols” that reflect recommended best practices and adequately make use of the unique support resources available at each school. However, the impetus lies with individual institutional leadership to respond to this call.

The attentive and compassionate response of my school’s leaders guided our institution through our own twin tragedies. But not every ship has such levelheaded captains at the helm—how can we expect faculty, staff, and learners to react calmly to a crisis when they themselves may be engulfed within it?

Now is the time to prepare for tragedy, long before it occurs.

Luke Burns
Third-year student, University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, San Diego, California; [email protected]

Copyright © 2017 by the Association of American Medical Colleges