How Well Are We Caring for Our Own?

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About Alison Tothy, MD

Alison Tothy, MD is a nationally recognized Pediatric Emergency Medicine Physician and Associate Professor at the University of Chicago. Dr. Tothy is a faculty member of the Clinician Experience Project, President of the Illinois Chapter of the Academy of Pediatrics and is a founding executive council member of the Institute for Innovation.

One of our members said it best, “As physicians, we are used to being in the role of rescuer and it can be difficult to ask for help, but we are less effective in our jobs if we are struggling. As they say on airplanes, put on your own mask before helping others.”

Unfortunately, when it comes to clinicians caring for each other it doesn’t often make the priority list. We asked Alison Tothy, MD, Faculty Member of the Clinician Experience Project, to share her perspective on what we can do to improve peer support.

Q: Why is peer support so important for clinicians and what happens when we don’t have it?

In medicine, it is very easy to feel surrounded by people, but at the same time feel alone. In fact, in the clinician research we recently conducted, one in three of us reported a lack of collegiality in our organizations. With all the stressors we experience as clinicians, it is important we feel connected with our peers experiencing the same challenges.

When we don’t feel supported we often disengage. Clinically, the physician-patient relationship can be at risk and errors are more likely to occur.

Q: What are the benefits of improving peer support?

When clinicians feel supported by peers we are more resilient, less likely to feel fatigued, and more engaged in both our work and home life. Then, of course, there are organizational benefits — more engaged physicians leading to better patient outcomes, improved satisfaction, less turnover and decreased adverse events.

Q: How can leaders and clinicians contribute to improving peer support at their organization?

About 40% of clinicians we surveyed report a lack of connectivity to colleagues and 27% of clinicians have an unfavorable perception of peer communication. That said, to build a healthy peer support network we must first focus on strengthening collaboration and communication.

There are simple things leaders and clinicians can do to improve peer support. For example, every group should have a process in place for reaching out to a colleague after a difficult patient experience. This sends an important message that we care about one another. In the Clinician Experience Project community, groups of clinicians often pair a meal with a video coaching tip to strengthen team communication and collaboration. Learning together and building community among clinicians is the best way to prevent these challenges.

Q: You interviewed Samantha Meltzer-Brody, MD, a highly regarded thought leader on the subject. What can we look forward to learning from her?

Among many of her strengths, Dr. Meltzer-Brody started a grassroots effort to aid colleagues as they struggled with burnout. She’s built this effort into a funded, well-supported cross-departmental program. We discuss her program at UNC and how it could be applied to other organizations to address clinician wellness.

Q: What do you hope clinicians and leaders will do after watching?

Start a conversation with your organization about how you can make peer support a greater priority. Push for a deeper discussion or more support if your organization is already talking about physician wellness.  Reach out to a colleague you are worried about or to a peer that had a bad event. Simply, start a conversation with another clinician about their day or recent experiences. Make caring for each other a priority!

Watch a segment of Dr. Meltzer-Brody’s interview now:

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