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Success Story: Easing Physician Distress With Peer Support

Based on an American Medical Association news article published April 14, 2020 and Sara Berg’s interview with Mark Greenawald, MD, Medical Director for Physician Leadership Development and Professional Well-Being, Carilion Clinic, Roanoke, VA.

Learn how a free “buddy system” program offers support for physicians and other health professionals during crisis and beyond.

What Was the Problem?

The uncertainty of COVID-19 has left many physicians and other health professionals feeling alone and stressed. It is in a crisis like this that guidance and support from colleagues, mentors, friends, and family can help. In fact, one family physician encourages doctors to find a buddy to confide in as they progress through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Developing the Intervention

Built on the idea that “No One Cares Alone,” PeerRXMed (PeerRx) is a free program that uses a “buddy system” to provide support and guidance for physicians and other health professionals. Created by Mark Greenawald, MD, a family physician, PeerRx serves as an outlet for physicians to share their thoughts and struggles, especially when COVID-19 continues to consume their daily lives.

“From my perspective, it's a lifeblood,” said Dr Greenawald. “If I didn't have colleagues with whom I had developed trust to be able to talk about some of these really hard conversations and very challenging emotions that many of us are experiencing, I would just be corroding on the inside right now.”

Since its pilot of 50 health professionals in 2019, the PeerRx program has gained momentum in the medical community. While the pilot group remains intact, the program has grown in size with more people reaching out to participate.

“I believe we all need someone, a confidant who is a colleague who truly understands what we're going through.”

—Mark Greenawald, MD

Having a buddy can help physicians and other health professionals overcome challenges faced in medicine, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to change. Here is how PeerRx works.

Choose your own buddy

Buddies are not assigned. Physicians are encouraged to choose someone they feel comfortable reaching out to or would like to get to know better. With the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr Greenawald has seen more receptivity among physicians in this program because it serves as an outlet during these trying times.

“We all need it and whether you do it formally or informally, having a buddy to share the professional journey with is vital,” he said.

While Dr Greenawald's wife is a physician and he can talk to her about different aspects of his day, she is not his partner in the program because he does not “want to take all the heaviness home to her all the time.”

“I want to process some of that and maybe talk to her about the processing because I'm learning a lot about myself while processing it,” he said. “I realized that early on in our marriage when we would come home every day as residents and we would kind of dump on each other and realized, ‘That's not the foundation for a long-term healthy relationship.'”

If someone is struggling to choose a partner, Dr Greenawald asks, “Who do you connect with or feel like you'd like to connect with?”

“It's as simple as that because I believe that the hunger is there. Most people really would love to connect more, but in some ways don't know how to do it,” he said.

Find time to check in

“If you touch base with your buddy for 90 seconds a week, that's much more than most of us are doing right now,” said Dr Greenawald, adding that “often we'll check in more frequently during the week when something more challenging is going on.”

Interacting with a buddy is designed to be done virtually, if desired, to allow for flexibility. For example, some partners can simply send a text asking how their buddy is doing. That simple act of checking in can go a long way.

A nudge will also be sent to all buddies every Monday via email. In this brief weekly newsletter, 2 questions to consider will be shared. These questions can be addressed at buddy check ins—whether they are weekly or more or less frequent.

“I'm trying to make it as easy as possible for folks who may not know each other that well,” he said, adding that some of the research shows that “many physicians don't really have a good professional friend—somebody who they literally can talk to about these things.”

“Even though they may be working with a large group of partners, they feel emotionally isolated because they think nobody else feels the same way they do about these things,” said Dr Greenawald, adding that having a buddy creates an opportunity for someone to “begin to disarm” those feelings.

Normalize the conversation

“Connecting with somebody who says, ‘I get you,' and to feel like we're being heard becomes really important. I truly believe if we truly had a professional buddy who we were checking in with regularly, we would really do a lot to impact what's going on right now in terms of clinician distress and burnout.”

—Mark Greenawald, MD

“What we know is that a lot of clinicians right now are feeling a lot of emotions that we're not very comfortable with,” Dr Greenawald said. “A lot of clinicians are feeling very angry about what's been happening with the COVID-19 situation. Many are feeling scared or sad in terms of what they're seeing.”

For example, a 30-year-old physician shared that she never thought she would be sitting down with her husband to talk about an advanced directive and will.

Additionally, “an emotion that has surprised a lot of people, and I think there's going to be a lot more of this, is shame,” said Dr Greenawald. “The shame that people are feeling from not being able to provide the kind of care that they know they want to provide and feeling kind of powerless to do anything about that right now.”

“What I love is that I know they have somebody that they are talking to about that and they're not carrying it inside them,” he said.

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Article Information

Disclosure Statement: Unless noted, all individuals in control of content reported no relevant financial relationships.

Disclaimer: AMA STEPS Forward® content is provided for informational purposes only, is believed to be current and accurate at the time of posting, and is not intended as, and should not be construed to be, legal, financial, medical, or consulting advice. Physicians and other users should seek competent legal, financial, medical, and consulting advice. AMA STEPS Forward® content provides information on commercial products, processes, and services for informational purposes only. The AMA does not endorse or recommend any commercial products, processes, or services and mention of the same in AMA STEPS Forward® content is not an endorsement or recommendation. The AMA hereby disclaims all express and implied warranties of any kind related to any third-party content or offering. The AMA expressly disclaims all liability for damages of any kind arising out of use, reference to, or reliance on AMA STEPS Forward® content.


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