Becky Gates, a fourth-year student at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine in Roanoke, Virginia, received the Outstanding Oral Presentation Award at the annual meeting for the International Association of Medical Science Educators (IAMSE), held in Las Vegas this June.

“I originally submitted my research to the conference hoping for a poster presentation. Then they asked me to do an oral presentation, which I accepted to challenge myself and push myself out of my comfort zone,” Gates said. “Before the conference, I was looking at the abstracts for each oral presentation and noticed about 10 presenters, including myself, out of the 60 presenters there had stars next to our names, indicating we were finalists for the award. I think I was the only student nominee.”

The IAMSE used a multiphased, peer review process and educational scholarship criteria to select the award finalists. During the conference, peer-reviewers observed and assessed the finalists’ presentations, selecting a winner from three categories: poster presentations, oral presentations, and reviewers.

Gates said she never expected to win, especially given she was up against faculty with many more years of experience in teaching and research. One of her “competitors” was a friendly face: Richard Vari, senior dean for academic affairs at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine who also currently serves as president of IAMSE.

“I am very proud of Becky. You know we are doing something right at the VTC School of Medicine when our students earn awards over their teachers,” Vari said. “Our students learn to teach from the very beginning of their medical education through our small-group, problem-based learning curriculum. In addition, they work on a substantial research project across their four-year education, so they gain a real expertise in their project.”

Over the past three years under the mentorship of David Musick, associate dean of faculty affairs at VTCSOM, as well as previously mentored by Lauren Penwell-Waines, who is now with Novant Health in North Carolina, Gates has researched several aspects of health care professional burnout, a topic of growing concern. Some studies have found about half of clinicians face burnout, which the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality defines as “a long-term stress reaction marked by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and lack of sense of personal accomplishment.”

Burnout can lead to lower levels of patient care and/or increased medical errors. The professional may also face depression, abuse of drugs or alcohol, or increased risk of suicide.

Gates presented at IAMSE about her findings on how the three factors of burnout – high emotional exhaustion, high depersonalization, and low personal accomplishment – are related to perceived wellbeing for various groups of health care professionals at Carilion Clinic.

“We found emotional exhaustion is universally important and has the larger relationship with perceived wellbeing compared to the other two variables for perceived wellbeing,” Gates said. “There were interesting trends among groups. For instance, personal accomplishment was more closely associated with perceived wellbeing in resident physicians and medical students than in another other group, while depersonalization did not impact medical students’ perceived wellbeing as much as other groups. This makes sense because residents and students are trainees. Both groups are constantly being evaluated and students in particular aren’t always interacting with patients as much as nurses or providers, especially in the preclinical years of medical school.

"Since IAMSE’s conference in June, we’ve been looking into these trends a bit more and testing them for statistical significance. We’re hoping to publish a paper in the near future.”

In addition, Gates found that people who had higher levels of depersonalization had better perceived wellbeing, which was the opposite relationship of what they expected to see. “We’re working now on determining whether that relationship is true or if there’s a confounding variable,” Gates said. “It could be a coping mechanism to overcome emotional exhaustion. I’m interested to see what we find when we dig a little bit more.”

Gates will continue her research during her fourth and final year of study at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. Every student is required to complete a robust study of publishable quality over their four-year education in order to graduate.

“I did basic science bench work as an undergraduate at Virginia Tech, and it was fun. But when I went to choose a project here, I wanted to choose something where I felt like I could make an impact right away,” Gates said. “The field of health professional wellbeing is evolving. It's a hot topic. You can collect data, use it tomorrow, and help a lot of people – not only the health care professionals but also the patients they are caring for and that appealed to me.”

While continuing research, Gates also will begin applying for residency to continue her medical training after graduating from VTCSOM in May. She has decided to pursue general surgery as her specialty.

She also plans to participate in next year’s IAMSE conference, which will be hosted by what will then be her alma mater, the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. It will be June 7-11, 2019, and is expected to draw about 500 basic science and clinical educators from across the globe to Roanoke, Virginia.