Toward Resilience: Medical Students' Perception of Social Support

J Am Osteopath Assoc. 2020 Dec 1;120(12):844-854. doi: 10.7556/jaoa.2020.158.


Context: There is strong evidence that social support-particularly perceived social support-functions as a protective factor for health. Few studies have investigated how medical students perceive the types of social support they experience.

Objective: To determine how osteopathic medical students perceive social support, understand the factors that influence their perceptions, and explore how group participation in a cocurricular, academic program could affect student perceptions.

Methods: In this cross-sectional study of 983 medical students at a multicampus osteopathic medical school in the Midwest, potential respondents were invited by email in March 2018 to participate in a self-reported evaluation of their perceived social support using a 40-question Interpersonal Support Evaluation List (ISEL). The demographic variables included gender, race, age, current phase in medical school, Hispanic heritage, campus assignment, and hometown population type. A total score for each type of social support and a summative score for overall perceived social support were calculated. Descriptive statistics were applied to provide a summary of the distribution of study variables. Bivariate analyses were conducted using student t test and analysis of variance (ANOVA) statistic to determine distribution of 4 social support constructs and overall social support by all the study variables; α < .05 was considered statistically significant. Linear regression analysis was performed to determine the association between all study variables and 4 social support constructs. Pairwise interactions were calculated to determine whether the association differed by any of the study variables.

Results: Self-esteem support was the lowest type of perceived social support overall in the total sample (mean [SD], 23.5[2.0]). Hispanic students reported lower overall mean perceived social support than those who did not identify as Hispanic (100 vs 104; P=.04). Older study participants had higher mean tangible support compared with their younger counterparts (26.25 vs. 25.60, P=.018; t [264]=1.18). Older study participants also had higher mean appraisal support compared with their younger counterparts (26.57 vs. 25.92, P=.06; t [266]=1.27). Female medical students reported lower levels of belonging support overall (mean [SD] 26.79, [2.10]). Students from rural hometowns reported a higher sense of belonging support than any other group. Female students from suburban and urban hometowns reported lower levels of belonging support compared with women from rural hometowns (Adj. β=-0.96, P=.01). Students who participated in the rural and urban underserved program had higher self esteem support compared with those who did not participate in the rural and urban underserved program (Adj. β=-1.30, P=.05). Students in the clinical phase of medical education reported lower levels of belonging support than students in the preclinical phase (26.14 vs. 26.69, P=.05; t[256]=1.07).

Conclusions: It is critical to understand the ways medical students experience social support and the factors that contribute to it. Longitudinal studies following medical students over time would contribute to a more complete understanding of social support in medical students as they move from preclinical to the clinical phases of medical school.

MeSH terms

  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Osteopathic Medicine* / education
  • Perception
  • Schools, Medical
  • Social Support
  • Students, Medical*