Why impaired wellness may be inevitable in medicine, and why that may not be a bad thing

William E. Bynum*, Lara Varpio, Pim Teunissen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Scopus citations


Context: A wellness crisis exists among physicians and medical trainees. High rates of burnout, depression, stress and other states of impaired wellness have driven a sense of urgency to create solutions, and the medical education community has mobilised impressively. However, we argue—and data suggest—that this rush to find solutions has outpaced our efforts to more fully understand the nature of impaired wellness in medicine. This, we believe, has led to the implementation of solutions informed by limited understanding of the problems we intend to solve. Methods: In this paper, we explore three contributors to this situation: (i) shaky definitions and conceptualisations of wellness, (ii) the predominance of deductive, quantitative research informing our understanding and current solutions, and (iii) the reliance on a ‘disease-focused’ approach to addressing impaired wellness in physicians and trainees. We discuss how these contributors have led to the current state of the science of wellness in medicine: one characterised by an expanding array of solutions built upon narrow conceptualisations of wellness and how it can be impaired. Discussion: Moving beyond the current state of the science on wellness in medicine will require three critical developments: (i) consistent use of clear definitions of wellness; (ii) expanding our methodologies to include those utilising direct interaction with participants; and (iii) moving beyond solutions informed by a disease-model approach. We propose a different way of thinking about wellness: one based on what we view as an inherent—and potentially unavoidable—risk of experiencing impairment during a career in medicine. We argue that efforts to extinguish and eliminate all states of impaired wellness may also eliminate opportunities to develop constructive coping mechanisms and future resilience, and that wellness may best be conceptualised as healthy and authentic engagement with the inevitable adversity of a career in medicine.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)16-22
Number of pages7
JournalMedical Education
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2021
Externally publishedYes


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