Canadian Medical Association

“The answer to burnout is often to seek solutions outside work. Go for a run, do yoga, find a hobby. The problem is, our burnout is being caused by work. So, the answer is to provide joy and purpose within our work.” – Dr. Joshua Tepper, CEO of North York General Hospital and CCPH keynote

Kicking off this year’s Canadian Conference on Physician Health (CCPH), Dr. Joshua Tepper’s keynote helped set the stage for many of the discussions at the two-day event.

While past wellness work has often focused on ways physicians could “help themselves”, this year’s conference program illustrated a shift. Physicians, students and researchers are focusing more and more on examining how medical culture and institutions contribute to burnout – and finding ways to change them.

One model for change was presented by Dr. Jo Shapiro, a pioneer in the field of physician peer support.

“We're talking about medical culture because in many ways, medical culture has let us down.” – Dr. Jo Shapiro, CCPH speaker on peer support

The Harvard professor and surgeon founded the Center for Professionalism and Peer Support at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and helped develop a peer support program that reaches out to physicians directly.

Dr. Shapiro explained the days after a medical error are often the most vulnerable time for physicians, and when surveyed, more than 88% of physicians at her hospital said they wanted to talk about these issues with a colleague. With the help of her hospital, she trained 50 peer supporters, and then set up a resource program. The problem? No one called.

So instead, Dr. Shapiro developed a proactive model, with peer supporters reaching out to all members of the health care team within 48 hours of an error. The result: people were open to the support and the message “this isn’t who you are, this is something that’s happened.”

Based on the conference presentations, peer support programs seem to be growing in popularity.  

Dr. Stephen Chin and Louisa Nedkov from Halton Healthcare in Southern Ontario outlined how their organization has adopted a Schwartz Rounds model for peer support, with staff across the hospital attending informal sharing sessions about issues such as the impact of patient death. Kelsey Mongrain, a third-year medical student, also outlined a peer support program for medical students called Side by Side, that she helped launch this fall at the University of Ottawa.

Other sessions focused on new wellness data, the challenges physicians face at different points in their careers, and the impact of gender, race and bias on physician wellness.

As the conference organizer, the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) also used the event to launch its latest report on wellness and work, Physician Health and Wellness in Canada: Connecting behaviours and occupational stressors to psychological outcomes. Building on the work of the 2018 National Physician Health Survey, which surveyed more than 3,000 physicians and residents, this latest report provides an in-depth look at occupational and behavioral factors that may be linked to burnout, depression and other wellness factors.

For the CMA, it’s just one piece of a growing commitment to physician health and wellness. CMA staff were at the conference polling participants about their ideas for action on physician health, and early next year, the CMA will be crossing the country to meet with members face-to-face about the path to improving physician health.

“This incredibly important conversation doesn’t end here,” explained Dr. Gigi Osler, CMA past-president, during her closing remarks. “We’re committed to working with physicians and medical learners to improve your health and wellness, and working together to drive change as individuals, in our institutions and across the health system.”

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