Survey: Plurality of Med Students Support Trigger Warnings

A person who can’t handle tough issues should not be a doctor.

According to a survey conducted by Ohio University medical-school professors, a plurality of med students think that using “trigger warnings” in med-school classrooms is a good idea.

According to the study, published in Teaching and Learning Medicine, 31 percent of the 259 students surveyed said “yes” when asked whether they supported the use of trigger warnings in medical education, with 39.2 percent saying “maybe” and just 29.7 percent saying “no.” According to an article in Campus Reform, many of the students who responded “maybe” “expressed generally favorable opinions of trigger warnings, including one student who said they should be used before discussing ‘very deep issues that potentially could cause an emotional rise in someone.’”

Here’s the thing, though: Discussing the issues “that potentially could cause an emotional rise in someone” is part of a medical professional’s job. Some examples are obvious — doctors who work in emergency rooms, for instance, will certainly have to deal with extreme trauma on a day-to-day basis. But the possibility of encountering emotionally sensitive material goes far beyond these traditionally high-pressure positions. Gynecologists, or even primary-care doctors, may have to discuss an issue about a patient’s sexual health that stems from a rape. Really, no aspiring doctor in any field of medicine could completely rule out the possibility of facing potentially “triggering” material at work — even physical therapists and chiropractors may at some point have to work with a patient who is recovering from injuries related to an assault.

What’s more, it’s not really enough for doctors to be able to just endure these kinds of discussions; they must also be able to handle them with confidence and calm, sometime acting as a source of strength for a patient who feels psychologically weak. “Bedside manner” is a category in online scoring systems for medical professionals (see websites such as for a reason: People want doctors who are not only able to fix physical symptoms but also able to deal with any related emotional issues in a sensitive and soothing way.

Trigger warnings may have a valuable role in some areas of society, but a medical-school classroom isn’t one of them, and the reason for that should be clear. I’ve written previously about law classes, such as those at Oxford University, using trigger warnings in the classroom, and the principle is the same: If you cannot handle the classroom, then you cannot handle the career. Like “lawyer,” “doctor” is a position whose job description is to deal with things that are going wrong. This isn’t to say that students who are unable to handle tough material are bad or inferior people, it’s just that they might be better suited to a career in which tough material isn’t such a standard part of the job.

When a doctor asks a patient, “Is there anything else I can help you with?” or, “Do you have any more questions?” the patient has to know that the doctor means it. Could you imagine being a patient, and bringing up a past assault, only to see your doctor hit the floor or run out of the room screaming and crying? Medical problems can be a very challenging part of life, and patients deserve doctors who can effectively navigate these sorts of difficult things with them.


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