Updated on 9/13/19 to reflect the latest program names and add information on Vituity's Joy in Medicine initiative.
Most healthcare providers choose their career out of a desire to help others. What we don't like to talk about is that in treating others, we can hurt ourselves.
This point was driven home for me when a dear friend — a gifted, empathic physician — died a few years back from an acute illness. At the time, he was feeling exhausted and overworked. He had trouble separating his patients' suffering from his own. While his emotional distress wasn't directly responsible for his death, it's probable that it weakened his defenses and exacerbated his final illness.
After my friend’s death, I set out to try to better understand what had happened. At a community lecture entitled "Spirituality in Times of Crisis," I was introduced for the first time to the concept of compassion fatigue, a combination of job burnout and secondary trauma that often affects helping professionals.
A chaplain, who worked with the local fire department, told the story of a young child who drowned in a swimming pool. He described the ordeal of the paramedics as they tried to resuscitate the boy en route to the hospital. Sadly, the child was pronounced dead in the emergency department (ED).
Based on past experience that had enlightened EMS agency policy, the first responders were given paid leave from their jobs and provided with counseling. They would not be allowed back on the job until they were determined to be at low risk for “imprinting” the trauma that they had experienced — and so would have fewer lasting effects from that experience.
As I listened, I realized that this story sounded so familiar. The same child had been brought to our ED, where we'd tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate him. We were in fact the ones who informed his parents that he had died. Afterward, while the medics were off to recover, what was expected of ED providers? Next patient!
Wow, I thought to myself. Something is wrong with this paradigm.
At the time, I was on Vituity's Credentials and Partnership Affairs Committee, which oversees wellness promotion. When I shared what I had learned with other members, it really resonated with them. So in 2011, we formed a resilience task force composed of physicians, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners. Our group worked with Eric Gentry, PhD, LMHC, a psychologist and traumatologist, to create what ultimately became our practice's Professional Resiliency Program.
Before we talk about teaching resiliency, let's take a moment to explore the concept.
Multiple studies in the past few years have shown that there is a high rate of burnout among ED and other hospital-based providers. Is there a way to do this kind of work and not suffer from it?
The answer is a resounding yes. Our workshops are designed to demonstrate how we can be more “resilient” to the effects of workplace stress and live more satisfying professional and personal lives.
In our workshop, we first ask everyone to write down three symptoms of work-related stress that they have experienced and to share them with the group. Common examples include difficulty sleeping, irritability, and challenges with personal relationships.
"What causes these symptoms?" we then ask. Typical answers: the EHR, fear of liability, administrator demands, patient demands, conflicts with team members, long hours, and so on.
But here's the rub. None of these stress factors actually cause our symptoms. They're only triggers. And the truth is, we really can’t control many of these workplace factors. The ultimate cause of our “stress-related symptoms” — and the only thing that we can really control — is our response to intense workplace factors.
Our bodies react to threats (both real and perceived) by activating our sympathetic nervous system (SNS), the component of our autonomic nervous system that mobilizes us to fight or flee. Spending too much time in this aroused state is exhausting, stressful, and unhealthy. Under persistent sympathetic activation, the neocortex of the brain, which governs reason, emotion, creativity, and language, is inhibited, while our more primitive brain centers are activated. This physiologic central nervous system (CNS) response to threat can adversely impact both our job performance and our personal lives.
The good news: We can prevent SNS dominance by managing our body physiology. When our bodies are relaxed, it is physiologically impossible to be stressed! And just as we can modulate our physiologic responses, we can modulate our perceptions so that we perceive fewer aspects of our work environment as threatening. These techniques have been demonstrated in evidence-based reviews to have profound beneficial effects for healthcare providers.
The Vituity task force has developed a comprehensive resilience tool kit, including an hour-long introductory video and self-education materials that can be accessed online (for CME credit). But the foundation of our program is a workshop where participants learn and practice resilience skills.
In addition to providing background on compassion fatigue, our Professional Resilience Program emphasizes:
- Self-regulation. This is the ability to shift immediately from SNS to PNS (parasympathetic nervous system) dominance, especially when we feel threatened. Self-regulation differs from other relaxation techniques in that it can be utilized while engaged in work-related tasks like caring for patients. No time-out is required.
- Perceptual maturation. To a certain degree, we can lessen our tendency toward SNS activation by changing how we interpret the world. For example, we might choose to see work tasks as choices, not imperatives. And rather than trying to meet every request, we can accept that it is the nature of work systems to always demand more than we can deliver.
- Support and connection. Hardened self-reliance will only get us so far. We all need to cultivate a trusted network of people who will both comfort us and confront us if we start to become symptomatic. The ability to connect with another and share our traumatic experiences in a controlled environment has been demonstrated to reduce the symptoms of vicarious traumatic stress.
- Self-care. This is the core of what you hear from other “wellness programs.” Care for yourself: eat right, sleep enough, get aerobic exercise, and enhance spiritual connections.
In the words of Eric Gentry, the path to becoming resilient is simple but not easy. It takes time, diligence, and persistence to hone our skills, change old attitudes, and build support networks.
That being said, boosting our resilience generally improves our functioning in just about every way. Perhaps most importantly, it can rekindle that sense of mission and compassion that attracted us to healthcare in the first place.
Working on the Professional Resiliency Program allowed me to hone my own resilience, to continue to practice medicine, and to be an effective leader. The feedback that we received from resilience workshop attendees informed us that they were finding this material to be very effective.
Vituity's Joy in Medicine committee is still working to increase awareness of these issues and engage more Partners in the resilience program. We want to help providers understand that caring for others who are ill or injured must hurt. However, we don’t have to suffer, and we can still lead satisfying personal and professional lives.
To read additional stories of trauma, resiliency, and recovery from providers at the front lines, please click here.