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How COVID-19 has affected academic faculty at medical schools

People have wondered whether the COVID-19 pandemic has increased burnout in physicians throughout the United States. Dr. Linda Pololi, a distinguished senior scientist and research scholar in the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis, has been conducting research on the culture of academic medicine and how COVID-19 has affected academic faculty at medical schools. She is the principal investigator and director of the national initiative on gender culture and leadership in medicine known as C-Change. 

C-Change is a year-long program where mid-career faculty come together for two- to three- day conferences that occur four times a year in which they participate in group peer mentoring. This program focuses on building characteristics that will allow individuals to be leaders in medicine and good mentors, while also allowing individuals to have a clear notion of what is important to them. Pololi has documented the culture of academic medicine for many years at Brandeis and wanted to create changes in the culture of academic medicine. She and her colleagues found a way to do so through C-Change, which provides mentoring programs and career development for faculty members.  Pololi explains that “We have always had a focus on increasing the diversity of leadership in academic medicine, both for women and for people not well represented in medicine, racially and ethnically.”

Pololi and her colleagues were given funds by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study a peer group mentoring model in randomized control trials, and also look at the mechanisms of action. However, the spread of COVID-19 caused a delay in planning and research. As a result, the team decided to ask academic faculty at medical schools three questions regarding how COVID-19 was affecting them: how has COVID-19 affected the meaning you find in your work, how are you feeling about your role and career choice now with the coronavirus pandemic and how are your values being impacted or tested in these times. 

The participants in this study consisted of faculty members at medical schools from 16 states. Half were physicians and half were those with doctorates, and all were enrolled in the study for two years. The participants were also selected based on their demographics: half were people who are racially and ethnically well represented in medicine and half were underrepresented in medicine, along with half being men and half being women. 

In March 2020, Pololi sent the participants a personalized email and asked them the three questions regarding how they were doing in response to COVID-19. 90 percent of participants responded, and Pololi and her colleagues analyzed the responses. The participants highlighted how the pandemic allowed them to find meaning and realize the importance of their work and how it aligned with their personal values. 

Pololi and her colleagues were surprised that most of the participants did not say that this had been a very difficult time for them. Instead, they recognized the risks they were taking and found meaning in their work. There were very few responses about the negative aspects of this pandemic. According to Pololi, “This group of people is very dedicated to doing what they can to contribute and help which is great.” 

The team plans to follow up with the participants in the study in a year regarding how they are feeling. In addition, the team is also working closely with many of these participants through C-Change programs in order to build important skills needed in academic medicine. Overall, Pololi emphasizes the importance of making sure one’s career choice aligns with one’s personal values. She specifically highlights, “these great opportunities may come along and divert you from what is most meaningful to you, and you can change your mind, but you have to intentionally make sure that these things are aligned for you, because that’s what makes you vital and enthusiastic about what you’re doing, because the work is hard.”

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