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Physician wellness work gaining ground; more than 500 gather at International Conference on Physician Health co-hosted by the CMA​

​“We have a system that is perfectly designed to toast people,” declared Dr. Anthony Suchman, speaking to a crowd of more than 500 at the International Conference on Physician Health (ICPH).

It was a sobering statement, yet by the end of his keynote Dr. Suchman had the audience laughing, pulling out a guitar and singing Kumbaya – a mocking nod to the dismissal of physician wellness being “a bunch of people sitting around singing Kumbaya”.

In the end, ICPH 2018 made huge leaps in dispelling this myth, and showcasing the growing body of work on physician wellness. This year’s conference, co-hosted by the Canadian Medical Association (CMA), was a sold-out event, with 82 oral presentations and workshops, nearly 100 poster presentations and participants from as far away as New Zealand.

The three-day event focused on three “streams” in physician wellness: individual change, system change and culture change.

Project Breathe, a pilot project at St. Michael’s Hospital, is one example of the work being done in the “individual” stream. This team is experimenting with virtual reality as one way of reducing physician stress. Resident physicians working in the hospital overnight take a short break to put on a pair of VR glasses and run through a relaxation app called Lumen. Their heart rate and other vitals are monitored, to measure how well it reduces stress. While testing is ongoing, Dr. Tomas Saun, the fourth-year resident championing the project, sees VR as another possible tool to help physicians cope with the noise and chaos of a busy hospital overnight.

System change was another stream that garnered a lot interest at ICPH. 

Dr. Barbara McAneny, president of the American Medical Association, talked about her organizations’ work to standardize procedure coding, so that doctors can spend less time inputting data in computers and more time treating patients. She also talked about framing better physician wellness as a business case, quoting a study by the Rand Corporation that estimates the cost of replacing a physician who leaves practice at more than one million dollars.

Medical culture and changing culture to better support physicians was the third stream at the conference, yet it was an issue touched on in nearly every presentation.

The Permanente Medical Group, a US group encompassing 9,000 physicians, 60 clinics, and 30 hospitals, presented a workshop on how they tackled this culture change by teaching medical chiefs to lead with a “model of wellness”.  This included taking lunch breaks, not sending emails at 4 am, and learning to prioritize what’s “urgent”. 

Dr. Jessica Mahoney, a pediatrician and head of physician health and wellness at Permanente, says the culture change even extended to language. “Physicians being ‘on the front-line’ is a term we hear often, yet we aren’t in the military. These words mean something because they create a mentality,” said Dr. Mahoney.

Aside from co-hosting the conference, the CMA also used the ICPH to highlight its own newly-released data on physician health from the CMA National Physician Health survey. This snapshot of Canadian physician health and wellness not only provides up-to-date data on issues like burnout, positive screening for depression and the willingness of doctors to seek help, it’s also a tool to help inform initiatives moving forward.

As CMA President Dr. Gigi Osler explained in her opening address, “This is really about moving from facts and figures to action.”

Forward any comments about this article to: cmanews@cma.ca.