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Open Access Research article

Health-promoting factors in medical students and students of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics: design and baseline results of a comparative longitudinal study

Thomas Kötter12*, Yannick Tautphäus1, Martin Scherer2 and Edgar Voltmer3

Author Affiliations

1 Institute for Social Medicine and Epidemiology, University Medical Center Schleswig-Holstein, Campus Lübeck, Ratzeburger Allee 160, Lübeck 23562, Germany

2 Department of Primary Medical Care, University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, Martinistraße 52, Hamburg 20246, Germany

3 Department of Health and Behavioural Sciences, Friedensau Adventist University, An der Ihle 19, Friedensau 39291, Germany

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BMC Medical Education 2014, 14:134  doi:10.1186/1472-6920-14-134

Published: 4 July 2014

Abstract

Background

The negative impact of medical school on students' general and mental health has often been reported. Compared to students of other subjects, or employed peers, medical students face an increased risk of developing depression, anxiety and burnout. While pathogenetic factors have been studied extensively, less is known about health-promoting factors for medical students' health. This longitudinal study aims to identify predictors for maintaining good general and mental health during medical education. We report here the design of the study and its baseline results.

Methods

We initiated a prospective longitudinal cohort study at the University of Lübeck, Germany. Two consecutive classes of students, entering the university in 2011 and 2012, were recruited. Participants will be assessed annually for the duration of their course. We use validated psychometric instruments covering health outcomes (general and mental health) and personality traits, as well as self-developed, pre-tested items covering leisure activities and sociodemographic data.

Results

At baseline, compared to students of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects (n = 531; 60.8% response rate), a larger proportion of medical students (n = 350; 93.0% response rate) showed good general health (90.9% vs. 79.7%) and a similar proportion was in good mental health (88.3% vs. 86.3%). Medical students scored significantly higher in the personality traits of extraversion, conscientiousness, openness to experience and agreeableness. Neuroticism proved to be a statistically significant negative predictor for mental health in the logistic regression analyses. Satisfaction with life as a dimension of study-related behaviour and experience predicted general health at baseline. Physical activity was a statistically significant predictor for general health in medical students.

Conclusions

Baseline data revealed that medical students reported better general and similar mental health compared to STEM students. The annual follow-up questionnaires, combined with qualitative approaches, should clarify wether these differences reflect a higher resilience, a tendency to neglect personal health problems - as has been described for physicians - before entering medical school, or both. The final results may aid decision-makers in developing health-promotion programmes for medical students.

Keywords:
Medical students; Medical education; Mental health; Health promotion; Prevention; Personality assessment