Navigating Healthcare Crises, Fostering Support, and Transforming Physician Wellness Programs
In the first three articles of this series, “Harnessing the Power of the Physician Family”, we explored the ways physician families contribute to improved physician well-being, productivity, focus, and work-life harmony. Additionally, we highlighted some ways medical programs and healthcare systems can incorporate this support group in their physician wellness programs.
In this final article, we turn our attention to the importance of nurturing this support system, especially given the current state of healthcare. We also identify strategies for multiple branches of the healthcare community to integrate into their physician wellness programs.
There are currently two nationally declared health crises impacting our physician families.
First, the decline of mental health for our physicians is on the rise. A recent CDC study reports that our healthcare workers’ mental health is suffering, citing concerns with increased burnout and harassment, decreased trust in management, and lower workplace productivity. Not only are mental health statistics at an all time low, but nearly half of healthcare workers reported feeling burnt out and intended to look for a new jobs. These are frightening statistics, especially when one considers another looming threat of a physician shortage and that replacing a single physician can cost upward of $500,000.
The second mental health crisis in the US is one that stems from loneliness and isolation, which are major factors in physician spouse/partner well-being, especially during residency. In 2023, the Surgeon General issued an advisory declaring this an epidemic, stating approximately one in two adults in the US experience loneliness, even before the Covid pandemic. He issued a call to action stating that “loneliness and isolation represent profound threats to our health and well-being” and that we must “ mend the social fabric of our nation”. Considering the general population is experiencing loneliness and isolation in epidemic proportions, one can imagine a resident spouse/partner’s experience when relocating for residency, leaving behind friends, family, and career to spend 80+ hours alone in a new community.
The CDC and the Surgeon General are saying what we’ve been saying and what every physician spouse/partner already knows: healthcare systems must increase efforts to improve the lives of both physicians and their families – the future of medicine depends on it.
Along with the above research, several more data points reinforce how the family plays a significant role in shaping an individual’s career choices and the future of medicine. Based on a Physician Foundation study prior to 2020, 49% of physicians would not recommend medicine as a career to their children. In 2022, Doximity reported that 60% of physicians said they would “probably” or “definitely” not want their kids to work in medicine. Not only are physicians “not recommending a life in medicine” to their own kids, they’re sounding the alarm to friends and family, warning of the adverse effects on mental health and work-life harmony.
This information should serve as a wake-up call for the medical community, urging them to take immediate and decisive action.
A Missing Link?
In the quest for improved physician well-being, productivity, harmony, and even patient care, medical programs and healthcare systems have an incredible resource at their disposal and it’s being underutilized. The families, especially spouses and partners, are personal advocates who care about the physician’s professional success, and even more about their well-being and happiness. Healthcare systems need to recognize this, along with the challenges they face during the medical journey, and provide them the support they need to cultivate a stronger, more robust support system for physicians from the ground up.
Failing to engage the physician family as a key player in any physician well-being initiative is a missed opportunity to unlock the full potential of a more resilient healthcare ecosystem.
How to Harness the Power of the Physician Family
As healthcare institutions address this mental health crisis impacting physicians, they need to consider how to capitalize on the following:
- Leveraging the family unit as a source of support for improved physician well-being.
- Fostering support specifically for the family unit in order to maximize their strength and stability.
Implementing programs and offering resources to help the spouse/partner with their overall wellness are key to building a strong foundation of physician support and fueling a healthy family unit.
There are three major phases in a physician’s career when healthcare systems have the opportunity to do this.
According to the Mayo Clinic Well-Being Index, 50% of medical students already experience symptoms of burnout. That’s a staggering statistic for the early stages of training. Fortunately, there are actions medical schools can take to reinforce the positive impact of a strong family unit.
How to leverage family during medical school:
The secret to harnessing the power of families during medical school is communication. This is the case for both the medical student and the spouse/partner/support giver. The more they understand the processes and expectations during these four years, the more robust the support system they can build within the home, thus reducing medical student burnout and improving the overall well-being of physician families.
Open communication also helps normalize feelings during medical school. The pressures of training can make students question their adequacy, making them feel scared, isolated, overwhelmed, and incapable. Active communication allows both students and families to understand these types of feelings are normal, giving them the confidence to solicit/provide the necessary support to help get through challenging times.
- My MD to Be: My MD to Be is the single best communication resource we’ve found that utilizes family for medical student support. It’s named as an official resource for first-generation medical students by the AMCC and some of the top medical schools in the US are already using it. My MD to Be, in coordination with the schools, sends weekly emails to ‘support-givers’, keeping them updated on what students are doing and how to best support them. Receiving these emails from medical schools has proven to help students and their support-givers “meet in the middle” when it comes to communicating about what’s happening in med school, enabling their loved ones to provide better in-home support and understanding. Learn more about My MD to Be and Founder, Eran Magen, in this article.
- Utilize Spouses/Partners: The spouse/partner community in healthcare is strong and eager to help improve the training process for a smoother medical journey. Utilize them to assist in mentoring or wellness programs, helping other families learn how to navigate medical training and better support their loved ones. Solicit ideas from upper-class families for various ways to improve the training experience.
How to keep the support system strong and healthy in medical school:
- Orientation: Hold a family orientation to explain what to expect during medical school from the perspective of both the student and the family. Provide a timeline of major milestones. Have a seasoned spouse/partner speak about their experiences and provide tips for supporting their loved one. Provide an overview of the training process after medical school so everyone is on the same page as far as the commitment level required to complete training.
- Newsletter: In this case, knowledge is power. Curate a newsletter to help families understand what their loved one and their family should expect to experience during that particular phase. Help set expectations by explaining potential obstacles and student limitations during that particular time frame.
- Resources: Provide links to valuable resources for both the physician and the physician’s family to help get them through medical school and prepare for residency. These may include websites, podcasts, coaches, social media groups, etc., to help them better understand things such as the student loan repayment process, how to find support with people who understand, and other general resources to help them better navigate the medical journey.
Ask any physician family and they’ll tell you residency is undeniably the most challenging time of medical training.
Relocating away from established support networks, including friends, family, and careers is stressful. Low resident wages coupled with the burden of medical school debt create a significant financial strain. In situations involving young children, external employment for the spouse/partner may be impractical due to an unpredictable work schedule. These stressors, combined with the resident workload often exceeding 80+ hours per week away from home, can lead to feelings of loneliness, isolation, and resentment among spouses and partners.
We talked about various ways medical programs and healthcare systems can leverage physician spouses/partners during residency in article two of this series, ‘Family Support: The Key to Physician Productivity & Focus’.
Here are ways medical programs can foster support for the physician family unit to maximize their strength and stability during residency/fellowship:
- As early as interview season, provide interviewees with the different ways you support the family as a whole and ask if the spouse/partner has any questions about the program or the process.
- Nurture a sense of community for physician spouses/partners early in residency, acknowledging their role as support givers and the benefits of connecting with other physician spouses/partners during this time. Adding The MedCommons Circle to your physician wellness program is an easy way to foster community and help physician spouses/partners find others who understand what it’s like to be married to medicine.
- Open lines of communication immediately after MATCH, making the next steps clear for a smooth transition. Have information and resources readily available for the upcoming move, their new community, and any opportunities available for spouses/partners to get involved. These resources may include information about realtors, housing, schedules, moving, available job opportunities, community involvement, etc.
Each year The MedCommons collaborates with Moving Medicine Partners and Move Mama Move to offer matched MS4 families with a free resource called “Mastering Your Move”. This 12-module program begins two weeks before MATCH and helps incoming residents understand their real estate options, simplifies the moving process, and identifies ways to build a new community during residency. Use this free resource in your toolkit for newly matched families in your program.
- Provide links to valuable resources for both the physician and the physician’s family. These may include websites, podcasts, coaches, social media groups, etc to help better understand things like the student loan repayment process, how to find support with people who understand, and other general resources to help better navigate the medical journey. Include a link to The MedCommons as a resource for physician families to find valuable resources, information, and camaraderie.
Once physician families enter the attending stage, they’re well aware of the idiosyncrasies of the medical journey. While inclusion isn’t as necessary, the need for a strong support system is still there because the impact at this stage is significant. Physicians experience increased burnout and stress from potential lawsuits and non-compete clauses. Anxiety around ramifications from seeking mental health care, thinking about a career change, increased familial pressures, paying off student loans, etc., all create additional stress.
Any organization employing physicians at this point must offer wellness resources and information sessions to educate spouses/partners/support givers on recognizing the indicators of physician burnout and suicidal ideation. They must understand the steps to take when signs are spotted and know the resources available for help. The Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation is one of the most valuable resources for finding more information on burnout, depression, and physician suicide.
* There is one more potential avenue that can positively influence the physician and their support system: physician contracting firms and recruiters. Many times, they have the first access to both physician and spouse/partner on behalf of the hospital. This is a golden opportunity to offer resources and information, as mentioned throughout this article, to help make transitions easier for the physician and family.
Physician wellness is at a crossroads and the healthcare community needs to take notice and take action.
There are many facets to the overall health of the physician that need to be considered and support the family unit provides to their well-being is one of them. The four articles in the series highlight key aspects involving how spouses and partners provide support along with how important it is to ensure the spouse/partner’s wellbeing is also being addressed.
Institutions that recognize the vital role of family support in promoting physician happiness and success and take concrete steps to integrate this support into their programs and services pave the way for a more holistic and resilient healthcare ecosystem. This kind of forward-thinking sets a positive example for the healthcare industry, not only contributing to the betterment of physician well-being but also patient care and the future of medicine.