Making physician wellness a priority

How can physicians care for patients if they’re not caring for themselves? In recent years there’s been increasing awareness of the importance of physician wellness. The Canadian Medical Associations National Physician Health Survey found that 30% of Canadian Physicians exhibited symptoms of burnout. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health is making physician health a priority and instituting a multi-pronged approach to improve physician well-being.

“Burnout is a process. It’s not usually caused by a single event, but it’s the result of repeated stress over time. As we’ve begun to acknowledge that burnout is an issue, we’ve begun to develop ideas about the best ways to address it and rediscover the joy of medicine,” says Dr. Vicky Stergiopoulos, Vice-Chair, Clinical and Innovation, Physician-in-Chief, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Informed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, CAMH set out to create a practical framework promoting physician wellness across the organization. In order to make a real and substantial difference to physician wellness, the initiative worked on individual, team and organizational factors that impact physician wellbeing.

Dr. Treena Wilkie, Deputy Physician-in-Chief, Medical Affairs and Practice at CAMH, and an Assistant Professor in the Department, has overseen the implementation of the physician wellness initiative over the last year. “One thing that comes through the literature is a sense of isolation,” she says, “In response, we’re trying to create a sense of community for physicians, to help counteract external pressures that are increasing over time.”

CAMH has implemented a number of initiatives to achieve this goal. A peer support program has been established to encourage physicians to provide support to colleagues who are coping with stressful circumstances. Twenty physicians have been identified and trained as peer supporters.

Mentorship is a major part of the wellness strategy. Potential mentors are nominated by leaders from among CAMH’s senior physicians, and then paired with junior team members. So far, over sixty staff members have agreed to be mentors. Eventually, mentorship will be integrated into the onboarding process, and new physicians will be paired with mentors as soon as they start at CAMH.

The establishment of communities of practice is another important step towards addressing feelings of isolation. Feedback from surveys indicated that physicians wanted more opportunities to come together. Communities of Practice are groups of physicians who gather regularly to discuss areas of interest and their day-to-day experiences. A number of Communities of Practice have been established, including Women in Psychiatry, and Junior and Late Career Transitions Faculty Clubs. Queer in Psychiatry, a U of T resident group, has also established a Community of Practice.

The Physician Wellness program complements organizational initiatives available to both staff and physicians, including a Wellness Centre and Psychological Help at the Workplace. It also includes training opportunities to help physicians advance in their careers and gain new skills, as well as new onboarding materials that emphasize professional norms, and highlight peer support and constructive feedback.

CAMH’s physician wellness program has been used as the basis for a national webinar organized by the Mental Health Commission, and is disseminating learning locally and nationally. Ultimately, the initiative will not only safeguard the wellbeing of our physicians and promote their professional development, but advance the quality of care, which is dependent on engaged and healthy clinicians. To provide the best care to patients, physicians and other clinicians must ensure they do not neglect their own wellness.