Studies exploring evidence-based interventions to address physician burnout and distress indicate that physicians prefer to seek support from other physicians, compared to supports such as an Employee Assistance Program or other mental health professionals
The most effective physician support system involves peers who have the unique qualification of having “been there". Such a support system strengthens the culture of trust by supporting providers at their most vulnerable moments, protecting them against burnout and emotional impairment.
Inspired by the Peers for Peers Program created and implemented at the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry in 2020 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the VCH Physician Peer Support Program aims to support physician well-being at the local level through the development of a network of VCH volunteer physician peer supporters.
Spearheaded by Dr. Ashok Krishnamoorthy, Department Head of Psychiatry, Medical Staff Association (MSA) President at Richmond Hospital and member of the Board of Directors at the Doctors of BC, the Peer Support Program is a partnership between VCH and the Medical Staff Associations which provides a way for physicians seeking support to reach in and access a trained peer supporter in a timely manner. The Program also provides outreach services which involves proactively reaching out and offering support to physicians who have been involved in an adverse event (e.g. difficult patient interaction, patient death, near miss, medical error, or complication). Any Department or Division Head, physician or staff can reach out to the Physician Peer Support Program and share that a physician was involved in an adverse event, with the physician's consent.
Physicians interested in becoming volunteer peer supporters were requested to put their names forward in June, 2021. Through this process, two cohorts of physicians participated in peer support training between July 2021 and March 2022. Today, there are over 40 trained physician peer supporters across VCH.
Peer support training was provided by Dr. Jo Shapiro, founder of the Harvard's Brigham and Women's Hospital Center for Professionalism and Peer Support and through the newly accredited Peers for Peers training course offered through the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry Wellbeing Program, University of Western Ontario.
In addition, Dr. John Van Aerde, Executive Medical Director of the Canadian Society of Physician Leaders and the Founding Editor of the Canadian Journal of Physician Leadership , provided a coaching session on self awareness, ladder of inference, and other concepts to help peer supporters prepare for their role.
A presentation was also given by Roxanne Joyce and Felicia Phan from the Physician Health Program of BC on a variety of themes in peer support including self-care, review of peer support scenarios which individuals may face, and sharing of resources and services available to physicians, both seeking and providing peer support.
Peer support does not involve therapy, clinical treatment or diagnosis. Peer supporters within the Program are trained to provide non-professional, one-to-one, confidential support to their colleagues for a limited period of time.
The emphasis within exchanges between peers will be on empathetic listening, creating a psychologically safe space and shared experience. Volunteer physician peer supporters will provide individual, easily accessible, collegial, confidential support to colleagues who are going through challenging times in their life due to clinical, work-related, or personal issues affecting their work-life balance. The peer supporters will be able to provide mutual support, which is informal, as well as guidance towards resources that their colleague may not be aware of, including where to seek further formal support/help.
The peer supporters who have been enlisted in the Program are a diverse group who come from across VCH, with representation from all three Communities of Care (CoC) and a wide variety of practice areas and specialties. These physicians have already participated in several hours of training and have demonstrated a significant commitment to improving the well-being of their fellow physicians.
Other peer support programs and services are available to physicians, for example through the Provincial Physician Health Program (PHP). Launching the VCH Physician Peer Support Program is not intended to limit any physician's ability to access other programs, but rather, the goal is to provide another option to those who are seeking support.