Blog | Friday, October 7, 2011

Teach medical students about healthy living

Last week I wrote a simple post on eating yogurt with fresh fruit for lunch. It wasn't until later that I realized why it's a medical lesson.

It happens that yesterday morning I was up and out early. I saw a former colleague walking along the street. He'd gained weight, and walked slowly. I thought about how hard he works, and what a good doctor I know him to be. And yet any citizen or patient might size him up as heavy, maybe even unhealthy.

The problem is not that he's uneducated or can't afford nutritious foods. He knows fully about the health benefits of losing weight and exercise. The problem is the stress and long hours of a busy, conscientious physician's lifestyle.

When I worked as a practicing doctor and researcher at the hospital, I rarely ate a nutritious breakfast or lunch. My morning meal, too often, consisted of a gobbled muffin and coffee. A weekly lunch conference provided faculty, fellows and students with Domino's pizza and soda. (To the best of my knowledge, these were not pharma-sponsored; otherwise the food would have been better quality.) On other days, we'd get take-out sandwiches from a nearby deli.

There was a salad bar in the hospital cafeteria. I took from it occasionally, but that involved time (long lines) and risk: You never knew who'd coughed over the lettuce, or swiped her hand too close to the chick peas.

Dinner was usually at home with my family, but I didn't have much time for cooking then. Sometimes my husband prepared dinner, which was a huge help. Still, we sometimes ordered in Chinese (American-style), from diners, and other local sources of high-fat, low-vitamin, low-fiber "junk" meals.

It wasn't until I stopped working at the hospital that I learned to eat three healthy meals on most days. Preparing meals with fresh foods takes time and effort, besides access to ingredients and a kitchen.

Med school can be stressful and involves long hours and late nights of study. The same goes for residency, and then for clinical practice in some specialties. Grabbing a slice or an over-sized sandwich is satisfying, and easier than packing lunch.

Maybe part of the curriculum for first-year students, even just a session, should focus on staying healthy as a busy doctor, on maintaining a good diet, keeping physically active and getting sufficient rest.

Perhaps this seems patronizing: Students in med school typically learn what to tell their patients about exercise, stress and weight control; it's assumed they know how to take care of themselves. But maybe we shouldn't wait until there's a problem (a student with an alcohol overdose, or an overweight doctor with a heart attack) to take note and address the fallout of long workdays and stress in physicians' lives.

This post originally appeared at Medical Lessons, written by Elaine Schattner, ACP Member, a nonpracticing hematologist and oncologist who teaches at Weill Cornell Medical College, where she is a Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine. She shares her ideas on education, ethics in medicine, health care news and culture. Her views on medicine are informed by her past experiences in caring for patients, as a researcher in cancer immunology and as a patient who's had breast cancer.