Feature: Rebuilding resiliency - Peers-for-Peers program offers support for physicians


By Crystal Mackay

“We're overwhelmed. We're scared of getting sick and scared of bringing COVID home to our families. Our patients are dying and we feel helpless, and our work environment is changing constantly. On top of that we’re trying to balance our work lives and our home lives, and all of this has just chipped away at our coping mechanisms and our resilience.”

As one of the Wellbeing Leads for the School’s Peers for Peers Support Program, Dr. Joy Mangel reflects on a year that has been enormously challenging for physicians and clinical faculty at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, and highlights the crucial need for programs like this one.

The first program of its kind in Canada based at an academic centre, the Peers for Peers program provides support through empathetic listening and shared experience and was put in place early in the pandemic by the Clinical Faculty Affairs Office at the School.

“We don’t know when this pandemic is going to end, so we need these peer support systems now more than ever,” said Dr. Mangel.

Evidence suggests that burnout affects more than half of practising physicians and confronted with the COVID-19 pandemic, that number is expected to have risen even higher. Since its inception there have been more than 100 encounters with the program.

The Wellbeing Leads are faculty members trained to provide emotional support and resources to their peers. While they don’t provide therapy, they are trained to provide an empathetic ear, and resources to seek professional care if needed.

The concept was borrowed from a similar program designed for commercial airline pilots that has quickly become popular across the globe. The notion of peer-to-peer support recognizes that it is important for professionals to be able to access the emotional support they need but at a distance from leaders and their employer. The School’s program builds on mounting evidence that one-on-one conversations with peers enhance wellness and build resilience.

“The peers aspect of this program really works because, as doctors, we share common ground and understand the unique challenges of this profession,” said Dr. Ryan Davey, the Wellbeing Lead for the Division of Cardiology at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry. “Whether it is an issue at work or home, it is sometimes easier to talk to a peer because they understand the context without explanation.”

The Clinical Faculty Affairs Office engaged all of the Chair/Chiefs in selecting Wellbeing Leads within every clinical department, including representatives in Dentistry and the Windsor Campus. Taking a ‘train the trainers’ approach, the program has empowered the Wellbeing Leads to keep the program moving forward.

“Our Peers for Peers program, launched with the full support of our leaders, provides the necessary in-the-moment peer support through personal empathetic conversations. We hope to be able to share what we’ve learned with other health care organizations to support provider wellbeing more broadly,” said Dr. Andrea Lum, Vice Dean, Clinical Faculty Affairs, who fast-tracked plans to implement the program in March 2020, moving from concept to fruition in just four weeks.

“As a general rule, doctors are really great at taking care of other people but not necessarily great at taking care of ourselves and we're also not generally very good at asking for help,” said Dr. Mangel “That's why we need programs like this that provide a safe space where faculty can talk about their concerns. Hopefully this program will empower the people who need it the most to reach out for help.”