PROFILING RESIDENTS IN RESEARCH: Dr. Jess Spence on balancing residency demands with a blossoming research career

By Jackie Gilbert, PGY3, McMaster University

With multiple research projects under her belt and a few on the go, in addition to being a published author of a book chapter, Dr. Jess Spence (PGY3 at McMaster University) draws upon her experiences to offer her advice for residents interested in pursuing research.

Tell us about your current research interest. What is your mission?

Currently I’m interested in burnout and resilience among anesthesia residents. Anesthesia residency training in North America may place residents at higher risk for burnout compared with other postgraduate medical education programs. In contrast to residents in internal medicine, surgery, obstetrics and pediatrics, who work in peer-based teams, anesthesia residents manage patients on their own under the direct or indirect supervision of a staff anesthesiologist. Limited qualitative literature suggests that peer support is the best way to prevent and mitigate burnout but, at this point, no quantitative studies exist. I’m undertaking an exploratory study examining the effect of participation in peer support groups on both qualitative and quantitative measures of burnout, with the goal of establishing an evidence base supporting this intervention. Ideally, this would be used to support the implementation of formal peer support frameworks within postgraduate anesthesia training programs.

You have taken part in many research projects. Which did you enjoy the most and why?

Hmmm. That’s a tough question. Part of why I enjoy research so much is that it’s a great way to learn more about an area of medicine, both in the process of developing a research question, and in the process of generating new knowledge to answer that question. For that reason, it’s hard to single one out. That being said, I really enjoyed a project I did as a fourth year medical student examining the effect of participating in a surgical safety audit on attitudes towards patient safety and interprofessionalism among medical and nursing students. It was great to be able to collaborate with the Faculty of Nursing, because it provided for both new perspectives and approaches. Ultimately, I think that an interprofessional approach is going to be key in changing patient safety attitudes and behaviours.

Balancing the demands of residency and research must be difficult. What were some of the struggles? What did you learn from this experience? What advice would you have for others hoping to become more involved in research?

The biggest difference that I’ve found between research in medical school and residency is the time commitment, largely because of the multiple demands of residency. I’ve had ongoing struggles trying to balance those demands with my research goals, family obligations and desire to maintain interests outside of medicine. I’ve learned that I need to remain aware of all of these dimensions of my life, and continually make a conscious effort to dedicate time and mental energy to each. For others wanting to pursue research I’d suggest being creative with time management; I’ve been amazed at where I can find time when I’m forced to think outside the box. I’d also suggest trying to develop a relationship with a mentor who can help you to focus your research efforts, and make your process that much more efficient.

What is next for you in the future, and what are you looking forward to?

I recently finished a project examining diagnostic testing practices in the ICU. I think, as residents, we often fail to appreciate the impact that unnecessary testing has on resource use and patient outcomes. Currently, I’m applying what I learned to a project examining intraoperative testing practice, with an emphasis on the implications of point-of-care testing. I’m also looking forward to having my second child, who I’m expecting in April!

Thank you for your genuine advice. Congratulations on all of your professional and personal accomplishments!

Jess can be reached at