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When Physicians Need a Hand: Peer Support Program Offers Help Through Difficult Times

Mar 29, 2018 06:00AM ● By MED Magazine

By Anne Geske

Physicians are aware that the practice of medicine carries risk, and that adverse outcomes can and do happen to patients. Physicians just don’t think they’re going to be a part, or cause, of them. Patients have risk factors that can increase the likelihood of complications, and medical procedures have their own inherent risks. Physicians know this. But when something goes wrong for patients, it can be devastating to physicians because they care deeply about their patients.

“A physician’s work is interwoven into their sense of self. It’s our profession, our calling—not just a job. If we think we played a role in harming our patients, we question our value, our competency. We might feel a profound sense of failure and grief when we’re a part of something that went wrong,” says Laurie Drill-Mellum, MD, an emergency medicine physician and chief medical officer of Constellation in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Left unaddressed, these feelings can lead to isolation, depression and dysfunctional communication.

Dr. Drill-Mellum knows firsthand how it feels. “When I was sued,” she says, “I was filled with self-doubt—an underlying fear that I might make a mistake.” Dr. Drill-Mellum now leads MMIC’s Clinician Peer Support program, which is comprised of a team of physicians trained to listen and provide emotional support to doctors and other clinicians who have experienced adverse events or are facing litigation.

“Many physicians tend toward introversion, and when they’re feeling doubt or anxiety their tendency is to withdraw,” says Dr. Drill-Mellum. In the past, when physicians got notice of a lawsuit through their insurance company, there was a number to call. But they didn’t access this program. “They feel too embarrassed and don’t ask for help—or they think asking for help is a sign of weakness. We found we need to reach out to physicians, because we know they won’t reach out themselves.”

Now, as a matter of course during a claim or lawsuit, physicians get a call from a trained peer. MMIC has received overwhelming feedback from physicians and health care administrators alike that the program is of great value.

For administrators, finding ways to reduce errors and prevent highly trained physicians from leaving the practice over stressful events is not only good for physicians and patients, but a smart business move. After a claim is filed against a physician, the likelihood of a subsequent claim triples for two years. “If one is feeling anxiety, anger and shame, these things impact communication and confidence. Errors do increase under the cloud of a lawsuit,” explains Dr. Drill-Mellum. Stress management can decrease the chances that this will happen, as well as increase physician retention and patient satisfaction.

“We’re trying to normalize what physicians are feeling,” says Dr. Drill-Mellum. “That’s number one. We help them move from shame to embarrassment to self-acceptance. The Clinician Peer Support program is a service where experienced peers help colleagues walk through these difficult times.”

  Anne Geske is a healthcare freelance writer.


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