Perfectionism, impostor phenomenon, and mental health in medicine: a literature review

Int J Med Educ. 2020 Sep 28;11:201-213. doi: 10.5116/ijme.5f54.c8f8.

Abstract

Objectives: The aims of this review, focused on medical students, residents, and physicians, were a) to determine the levels of perfectionism and prevalence of impostor phenomenon, b) to assess the relationship between perfectionism, impostor phenomenon, and mental health, and c) explore how medical culture may influence these personality characteristics.

Methods: A narrative literature review was conducted. Search terms were entered into PubMed, PsychINFO, Web of Science, EMBASE, and Google Scholar without date or geographic restrictions. The McMaster Critical Review Forms for Quantitative and Qualitative Studies were used for article appraisal. Final decisions on inclusion and exclusion were reached through discussion. Sixteen articles were included in this review and summarized in a data extraction table.

Results: Medical students had similar perfectionism scores to other student groups but scored lower in maladaptive perfectionism. The overall prevalence of the impostor phenomenon ranged from 22.5% to 46.6%. More females (41% - 52%) experienced clinical levels of impostor phenomenon compared to males (23.7% - 48%). Most studies did not find an association between the impostor phenomenon and academic year of training. Both personality characteristics were associated with negative mental health effects. Medical culture can train for and/or exacerbate these characteristics, affecting professional identity formation. Both characteristics contribute to distress for learners during commonly-used teaching methods in medical education.

Conclusions: Comprehensive changes in medical education that consider the relationship between medical culture, professional identity formation, impostor phenomenon, and perfectionism are needed. Longitudinal studies will help identify the implications of these findings for professional identity formation and medical education.

Keywords: impostor phenomenon; medical culture; mental health; perfectionism; professional identity formation.

Publication types

  • Review