- Maintaining physician wellness during Covid-19 and beyond
Doctors are working hard to provide the best care for their patients during the COVID-19 pandemic. These unprecedented times add stress and anxiety to physicians and frontline workers who may already feel burned out.
“I think most of us are just feeling tired,” shares Dr Laura Kelly, department head of Emergency Medicine at Ridge Meadows Hospital. “I'm seeing a fair amount of covert fatigue not just in doctors, but in all health care workers. A lot of people are exhausted.”
Dr Kelly and her colleague Dr Connie Ruffo, a White Rock hospitalist, recognized that doctors were potentially facing their own health crisis.
It’s why the doctors spearheaded swift efforts to prioritize the well-being of themselves and their colleagues through the Fraser Health Physician Wellness Committee, which is co-chaired by Drs Kelly and Ruffo.
As part of its work, the committee declared November as Physician Wellness Month in Fraser Health to keep health and well-being top of mind for all medical staff.
Also, the third annual Physician Wellness Forum held in November pivoted to accommodate pandemic restrictions, changing from an in-person event to a series of virtual workshops throughout the month.
Dr Kelly observed that the virtual sessions tried to accommodate both community- and hospital-based physician schedules, making it easier for doctors and medical staff to pop-in to the two-hour sessions at the end of workdays.
More than 100 doctors and medical staff joined weekly workshops to reflect on how to strengthen their personal wellbeing and of their colleagues. Topics included sources of wellness support, including community wellness teams, energy management, peer support, and compassionate leadership.
The forum is sponsored by the Fraser Health Authority and regional medical staff associations and divisions of family practice, and received funding for the first two years from Facility Engagement, an initiative of the Specialist Services Committee.
“The work we are doing for physician wellbeing highlights how vital Facility Engagement is in supporting physician partnerships with health authorities to nurture system change.”
Collaborating for cultural change
Dr Kelly notes that a doctor’s wellness is more than just caring for personal health through exercise, nutrition, or yoga. It’s also about connecting with peers to support one another. It is also about doctors engaging with the health care system to create changes that reduce the risk of burnout by improving efficiency and effectively delivering patient care.
For more than 15 years, Drs Kelly and Ruffo have been championing a shift in the culture of wellness at the grassroot level. They have been working with their peers, along with local and regional partners including MSAs, divisions, and Fraser Health. Together, these groups are fostering more peer-to-peer conversations, modelling compassionate leadership, reducing stigmas, and creating safe spaces.
In recent years, Drs Kelly and Ruffo have been working with colleagues and health care partners to develop a regional wellness strategy, visions and mission –a first of its kind in BC.
Recalling how she and Dr Ruffo got started, Dr Kelly says they modelled peer support by reaching out to colleagues who were distressed, sad or acting out, and fostered collegiality by hosting wellness activities where there were conversations about suicide, addiction, burnout, and how to look after a patient who's also a doctor.
Dr Kelly’s advice to other doctors is to do for themself and their colleagues as they would for their patients.
“It's just a matter of saying ‘I'm here. How are you? or I'm noticing this; how can I help?’”
Dr Kelly says that simply taking the time to truly listen and hear a colleague is what peer support is about.
“If you have people in each community that are modelling peer support, then they are seen as advocates for their colleagues,” says Dr Kelly. “And then we have real movement in the culture shift that we're trying to make –that physicians are valued and supported.”
These are challenging times in BC, and staying positive is more important than ever.
That’s why emergency physician Dr Linda Johannson took action to try to uplift her own spirits, and of her colleagues.
“Everyone was feeling stressed and real fears about what was to come,” says Dr Johannson. “I didn’t realize how deeply it [the Covid-19 pandemic] all was affecting me until one night on shift when I snapped at a nurse, something that is very out of character for me. She snapped back, also out of character for her, and we had a terrible shift together.”
After apologizing to the nurse and reflecting, Dr Johannson realized that everyone was feeling anxious, and this was affecting how they treat each other.
She acknowledged she wasn’t doing okay, and attended an online meditation session. The facilitator mentioned that a colleagues’ display of an anxious, fearful attitude is contagious and can spread to the whole team, and the reverse is also true.
This sparked the idea for the “Love is Also Contagious” campaign.
“I wanted a way to remind people that, because of the fear we are all experiencing, our behaviour may not be consistent with the way we know each other to be,” says dr Johannson. “We can recognize that in each other and in ourselves, offer forgiveness, and choose to behave in a loving way rather than react to the stress that is going on.”
Dr Johannson shared the campaign idea to spread love, not fear, as an attitude at work with her colleagues. With their overwhelming encouragement and funding from Facility Engagement, an initiative of the Specialist Services Committee, Dr Johannson started to work on the campaign.
She asked a friend who is a graphic designer to morph an image of the coronavirus into a heart. They turned this friendly image into buttons and stickers and a downloadable window sign.
In full support of the campaign, the Kootenay Lakes Hospital (KLH) administration sent a facility-wide email introducing the campaign and encouraging staff to wear the image as a visual reminder to act from a place of love.
Keeping the momentum going, Dr Johannson regularly distributes “Love is Also Contagious” pins and stickers around the hospital during different shifts.
“I can really feel the positive energy when I show up with my bag to hand out some love,” says Dr Johannson. “It’s been a lot of fun, and a side benefit has been that I feel much more positive about weathering this storm, both individually and as part of a top-notch team in KLH Emergency.”
Help spread the love. Download the “Love is Also Contagious” window sign.