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One in four doctors say they deal with ‘imposter phenomenon’


Women doctors and younger physicians say they are more likely to feel as if they don’t deserve their position.

Physicians undergo years of training and must possess the smarts, skills and stamina to become doctors.

Yet a surprising number say they have feelings of “imposter phenomenon,” according to a recent study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

Nearly one in four doctors (23%) say they have “frequent or intense” feelings of imposter phenomenon, the study found. Women physicians and younger doctors said they were more likely to experience feelings of imposter syndrome. Doctors in academic medical settings and physicians in the Veterans Health Administration also were more likely to report those feelings of inadequacy.

The researchers said it was the first large study of imposter phenomenon among practicing physicians in America.

Doctors said they were more likely to feel disappointed, even in the midst of notable accomplishments, than workers and other fields, the study found.

“These findings might seem surprising given the high level of education and professional stature of physicians,” the authors wrote. “However, they may reflect the challenges of working with a highly accomplished peer group combined with some of the professional norms of medical culture.”

Many begin experiencing imposter syndrome in medical school and residency programs, and those feelings continue later in the career of doctors. The authors suggest that it’s an indictment of the education of young physicians.

“This issue may be yet another vestige of a suboptimal training environment and habits and attitudes developed early in a career persisting later in a career,” the authors wrote.

Doctors tend to struggle with imposter phenomenon less as they progress in their careers, which is an encouraging sign, the researchers said.

The authors offer suggestions to help doctors who may be struggling with feelings of inadequacy compared to their peers. They suggest “debunking collective attitudes that cast physicians as superhuman.”

Healthcare organizations should also consider policies that promote a better work-life balance, or at least send the message that work doesn’t trump every other aspect of life. They also call for adjusting medical school training to allow aspiring physicians to see some of the struggles some doctors have in their careers.

“Senior physicians discussing challenging times in their career and sharing their ‘failure resume’ during department meetings or other forums can also be a useful approach to illustrate to junior physicians that many of their role models have also faced challenges throughout their career,” the authors wrote.

And healthcare organizations should make it clear to doctors that they should seek assistance if they need it.

More than half of all doctors said in a recent Medscape survey that they’re experiencing burnout, but few are seeking help. Slightly over half of the physician respondents (51%) in the Medscape survey said they wouldn’t get assistance for burnout or depression because they perceived it as saying something negative about themselves.

Read more: More doctors are suffering burnout, and health systems must do more

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