Physician Health

When addressing doctors’ well-being first ask, “How are you?”

Sara Berg, MS , News Editor

From stay-at-home orders to physical distancing, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on Americans’ well-being. Physicians and other health professionals on the front lines of care also have felt the personal impact of this pandemic. To bring physician well-being in focus during these unprecedented times, AMA member Lanny F. Wilson, MD, has found that the simple act of asking, “How are you doing?” can help.

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It's about “asking intentionally and giving the other person time to answer thoughtfully,” said Dr. Wilson, an ob-gyn and chair of the Physician Well-being Program at Amita Health in Hinsdale, Illinois, during a quarterly meeting with wellness leaders from the health system. Amita Health is a faith-based health system with 19 hospitals, more than 230 outpatient locations and 900 primary and specialty care physicians.

The AMA has two free surveys to help health care organizations monitor the impact COVID-19 has on their workforce during this pandemic. The surveys can be used to track trends in stress levels, identify specific drivers of stress, and develop supportive infrastructures based on these drivers. Organizations that use the surveys will receive free-of-charge support from the AMA in launching the surveys and access to data through an easy-to-use reporting dashboard.

Back at Amita, Dr. Wilson shared what makes for a healthy conversation with the physician wellness leaders at the health system.

Healthy sharing is transformative, which means it is vital that those involved actively listen to one another. While each physician wellness leader took turns sharing their thoughts and experiences, the Zoom room remained silent, actively listening and allowing everyone a chance to speak without interruption.

During the meeting, the physician wellness leaders exhibited “good listening and each speaker was rewarded to know that they were heard by compassionate and sympathetic listeners,” said Dr. Wilson, adding that “sometimes it’s not about action items so much as supporting those who are leading the actions.”

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When addressing well-being, it is important to underscore the need to be curious. As each person shares concerns, ask questions. Sometimes it takes being curious to uncover more of what a person is going through.

This curiosity was shown when Dr. Wilson asked each physician leader to share what was keeping them up at night—personally or professionally—during the pandemic.

“I thought maybe people would choose one or the other, but we really are both personal and professional. You can't separate the two canyons,” said Dr. Wilson.

Learn about five steps to build peer support amid COVID-19’s strain on physicians.

Establishing a healthy conversation also requires self-review, which can be “extended to our disciplines as well as to our families and friends, neighbors and communities,” said Dr. Wilson.

Self-review during a conversation allows individuals to reflect on what they shared. Physician wellness leaders reflected on sleepless nights, concerns about COVID-19 risk and transmission to family members, and losing family or friends.

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It is one thing to listen to what others say, but it is another to validate how someone is feeling. The team of leaders validated everyone and how they are feeling during the pandemic

For example, one physician explained his concerns about making sure his son completed his schoolwork through Zoom. As he concluded his thoughts, Dr. Wilson added more to the conversation. 

“You spoke for a lot of the physicians who are parents of school aged-children. You were taught to be a physician. You weren't taught to be a teacher and you're concerned about your family,” he said. “You're concerned about bringing the virus home. You’re concerned about the education that they may or may not be getting. We all hear you loud and clear.” 

Committed to making physician burnout a thing of the past, the AMA has studied, and is currently addressing issues causing and fueling physician burnout—including time constraints, technology and regulations—to better understand and reduce the challenges physicians face. By focusing on factors causing burnout at the system-level, the AMA assesses an organization’s well-being and offers guidance and targeted solutions to support physician well-being and satisfaction.