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Success Story: The Power of Peer Support During a Pandemic

Based on an American Medical Association news article published May 19, 2020 and Sara Berg's interview with Jo Shapiro, MD, FACS, Associate Professor of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA

Learn how Harvard Medical School's proactive peer support program method supports health professionals during trying times and offers a foundation for future support.

What Was the Problem?

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed a tremendous burden on physicians and other health professionals. It is a burden that is cognitive, physical, and emotional. One way to address this ongoing burden is through a peer support program, which can positively impact and shape the culture of medicine during the pandemic and moving forward.

Peer support is an organizational approach and an individual approach to being there for each other. When we think about our organizations and when we think about the way we practice medicine, we need to remind ourselves that the culture of medicine is very strong.

—Jo Shapiro, MD, FACS

“Much of the culture is wonderful, like the fact that we're healers and we put our patients first. That is beautiful, and no one will ever take that from us, but there is a dark side to this,” said Dr Shapiro. “The culture has in some ways let us down over the years. It's been increasing our workload without actually increasing the support to frontline clinicians, and it's minimized the emotional and physical well-being of physicians and other health care providers.”

Asking the question, “How are we expected to sustain our work if we don't address these challenges to our well-being?” Dr Shapiro emphasized the importance of peer support.

Developing the Intervention

By implementing peer support in a health system or physician practice, it can help physicians and other health professionals open up about what is causing them stress.

There are 6 fundamental elements for how to use peer support to provide guidance during a pandemic and beyond (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Fundamental Elements of Peer Support

Offer Resources

Connecting physicians and other health professionals to appropriate resources as needed is also vital to the success of a peer support program. “Sometimes peer support is absolutely not enough,” said Dr Shapiro. “We know health care providers, especially physicians, do not usually access mental health or other kinds of support.”

“One of the wonderful aspects of peer support is offering those resources to any of our peers,” she said, adding that it can help to emphasize that sometimes a particular circumstance or environment at the moment is causing health care providers to be especially stressed, and they may want further support.

In that case, “you are—as a peer supporter—happy to connect them with someone who can help them further,” said Dr Shapiro.

Close With a Thank You

“Because of the pandemic, peer support actually helps us reconnect and gives us back this feeling of solidarity. We're in this together, and it's really important for us to remind ourselves that we are.”

—Jo Shapiro, MD, FACS

The peer supporter should close with an expression of appreciation for the work the peer does and for sharing their thoughts.

“There's a lot we can do and are doing for each other,” she said, adding that “this is a very positive way of thinking about how we can support each other.”

STEPS Forward™ presents actionable, practical toolkits and customizable resources that you can use to successfully implement meaningful and transformative change in your practice or organization. See How it Works

Article Information

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

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