Passing of the Torch for Physician Health
By Jody Sie
Supporting physicians and medical learners in improving their health and well-being is not an easy task, but one that brought significant joy and fulfillment to Dr. Michael Loudon. In his nearly eight years at the helm of the Physicians at Risk (PAR) program, Dr. Loudon saw significant changes and progress, but he knows there is still a long way to go.
Though he has seen the beginnings of a positive global shift in reducing the stigma associated with mental health, Dr. Loudon worries physicians continue to put themselves under a pressure that does not allow the same vulnerability and space for healing that others outside of the medical community allow themselves. He believes physicians and medical learners mistakenly assume others see them as “healthy, stable and privileged” and they are therefore not reaching out when it is most needed. In the early days of the PAR Program, the perceived vulnerability of peer-to-peer support meant participants were more guarded and less likely to seek out help, but fortunately Dr. Loudon has begun to see a shift in this attitude.
In his experience, Dr. Loudon has seen “the weight of responsibility and personal sacrifice” of the profession give “physicians the false impression that they are irreplaceable” and therefore less likely to take time away for healing and wellness. And while equating needing help as a failure is a significant barrier to improving PHW, Dr. Loudon believes the organizations and the health system need to shift priorities and focus on engaging with physicians to see marked improvement in PHW.
Investing in physician leadership and engagement will improve decision-making within organizations, the health system, and also improve connections within the profession. Creating a comprehensive continuum of care will allow learners and physicians to feel supported when they need assistance. The evidence is clear that physician health also has a significant impact on improving patient care. It is also essential that rural and northern physicians have the same access to leadership and wellness support.
Last summer Dr. Loudon stepped down from his role with PAR, partly to focus on improving PHW with his role as Physician Champion for the IERHA hub in the PHW Community of Practice project. His professional passion remains in clinical care, as Medical Director of the Teulon Medical Clinic and Site Medical Lead for Teulon, Arborg, Ashern and Eriksdale. As for the extra time he has gained since stepping down from PAR, Dr. Loudon says his time in his role at PAR was always borrowed from somewhere else. Transitioning the role over to Dr. Shelley Anderson and living through a global pandemic has shown Dr. Loudon that he can, in fact, slow down. He is enjoying spending more time with his wife and daughters and reacquainting himself with his passion for flying. On behalf of all our members, the Board and Staff at Doctors Manitoba thanked Dr. Loudon for the years he dedicated to his colleagues and the impact he has made on PHW for physicians and medical learners.
Dr. Shelley Anderson took over where Dr. Loudon left off and joined the Doctors Manitoba team as the first-ever Medical Lead for Physician Health and Wellness in the summer of 2021. Her personal experience combined with her clinical expertise in Psychiatry have developed into a deep passion for improving the environments in which physicians and medical learners work and ensuring a continuum of supports and treatment options are accessible for those in need. Amid a global pandemic and startling statistics showing that physicians are more burnt out than ever before, she dove into all things PHW.
Dr. Anderson hit the ground running, immersing herself in the literature and adjusting to the learning curve. Doctors Manitoba has been working with the University of Manitoba and Shared Health to develop Cognitive Behavioural Therapy programming for members and has also collaborated with WellDoc Alberta to begin a provincial peer support network. PAR has also increased its capacity with two distinct support groups — one addiction specific and one that offers more general peer support — which have been well-attended with new members joining regularly.
Dr. Anderson’s email message to members in December resulted in many physicians and medical learners reaching out, evidence that perhaps we are seeing a culture shift in a willingness to ask for help and a recognition that others may also be struggling. The universality of the hurdles all physicians and medical learners face is daunting but seeing those who “show up for others, even when they are struggling themselves” gives Dr. Anderson hope.
As she works toward greater awareness and access, Dr. Anderson would like to see the programs offered by Doctors Manitoba expanded and integrated at a system-level to ensure everyone, at every level, is working to improve PHW. She believes that “collaboration and buy-in is crucial” at all levels for the problem to be properly addressed. As we emerge from the pandemic, special attention will need to be given to medical learners, who have faced increased demands and isolation these past two years. Her work will also centre on Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Decolonization (EDID), which Dr. Anderson believes should go hand-in-hand with PHW.
With recent data from a CMA survey showing that nearly half (46%) of physicians have considered reducing their hours, we will see an even greater burden on the workforce. Both Dr. Loudon and Dr. Anderson stressed that fixing the system will mean a buy-in for leadership and the development of a comprehensive and multi-level strategy and resource system for physicians and medical learners. And perhaps the greatest hurdle of all will be convincing doctors and learners that asking for help is more than okay, in fact, it’s essential.