Association of medical student burnout with residency specialty choice


John T Chibnall, Department of Neurology and Psychiatry, Saint Louis University, 1438 South Grand Boulevard, St Louis, Missouri 63104, USA. Tel: 00 1 314 977 4807; E-mail:


Context  Given the trend among medical students away from primary care medicine and toward specialties that allow for more controllable lifestyles, the identification of factors associated with specialty choice is important. Burnout is one such factor. The purpose of this study was to examine the associations between burnout and residency specialty choice in terms of provision for a less versus more controllable lifestyle (e.g. internal medicine versus dermatology) and a lower versus higher income (e.g. paediatrics versus anaesthesiology).

Methods  A survey was sent to 165 Year 4 medical students who had entered the residency matching system. Students answered questions about specialty choice, motivating factors (lifestyle, patient care and prestige) and perceptions of medicine as a profession. They completed the Maslach Burnout Inventory–Human Services (MBI), which defines burnout in relation to emotional exhaustion (EE), depersonalisation (DP) and personal accomplishment (PA). Burnout and other variables were tested for associations with specialty lifestyle controllability and income.

Results  A response rate of 88% (n = 145) was achieved. Experiences of MBI-EE, MBI-DP and MBI-PA burnout were reported by 42 (29%), 26 (18%) and 30 (21%) students, respectively. Specialties with less controllable lifestyles were chosen by 87 (60%) students and lower-income specialties by 81 (56%). Adjusted odds ratios (ORs) indicated that the choice of a specialty with a more controllable lifestyle was associated with higher MBI-EE burnout (OR = 1.77, 95% confidence interval [CI] 1.06–2.96), as well as stronger lifestyle- and prestige-related motivation, and weaker patient care-related motivation. The choice of a higher-income specialty was associated with lower MBI-PA burnout (OR = 0.56, 95% CI 0.32–0.98), weaker lifestyle- and patient care-related motivation, and stronger prestige-related motivation.

Conclusions  Specialty choices regarding lifestyle controllability and income were associated with the amount and type of medical school burnout, as well as with lifestyle-, prestige- and patient care-related motivation. Given that burnout may influence specialty choice, particularly with regard to the primary care specialties, medical schools may consider the utility of burnout prevention strategies.