An Ailment More Common Than You Think: “Medical Student Syndrome”

While most people are familiar with the psychosomatic condition hypochondria, in which individuals have a preoccupying fear of having a serious illness despite appropriate medical evaluations and reassurances that their health is fine. You may not, however, be familiar with a similar condition called “Medical Student Syndrome.” It’s a psychological condition among medical trainees who experience symptoms of the diseases they are studying. The condition was first reported in the 1960s after research showed that it was present in approximately 70% to 80% of medical students. For example, the knowledge that pneumonia produces pain in a certain spot leads to a concentration of attention on that region, which causes some students to perceive any sensation there as a reason for alarm. Another example is a student who reads about brain tumors, which are often associated with headaches, and suddenly assumes that an ordinary headache is an indicator that they have a brain tumor. There’s an old adage in the medical community that states: “If a medical student hears hoof-beats outside the window, they think it’s a zebra.” In other words, they conclude that the common sound is ascribable to the rarest of beasts. Though this phenomenon might occur at any time in a physician’s career, it commonly occurs during the first clinical year of internship. Fear of death lies at the heart of both Medical Student Syndrome and hypochondria in general. Medical professionals are regularly confronted with death in their work, but with passing years and added perspective, the depth of their fear normally diminishes to a manageable level.