Reflections of a physician coach

It has been six months since I have achieved certification as a physician peer coach. My motivation was the desire to provide both peer support and guidance to my colleagues in health care. Once certified, I began the process of reaching out to individuals and organizations and was surprised to learn that many in the field of medicine were unaware of coaching as a tool for wellness. Specifically, I found that while burnout is a well-recognized dilemma in medicine, the resources to treat it are woefully inadequate. Most health care organizations and employee assistance programs (EAPs) are unaware of the benefits of coaching and see burnout as a sign of inadequacy on the part of the health care professional. While anger management, resiliency training, and therapy may be offered, the real challenge is identifying the underlying causes of burnout. If one takes the “meta-view” (coach-speak for stepping back and looking at the whole picture), it is easy to see that the current medical climate is a toxic, dysfunctional environment that breeds dissatisfaction. Left untreated, this can progress to actual burnout. 

I have quickly learned that the concept of coaching for health care professionals is in its infancy; few recognize what seems so obvious to me. There is nothing wrong with those that find themselves burning out, but rather the work environment they find themselves in. Unlike therapy (which looks in the past and identifies mental health disorders), coaching is founded on the premise that the coachee is whole, resourceful, and creative, and as such has the capacity to achieve both professional and personal goals. Coaches “forward the action,” collaborating with the coachee to find new ways to succeed, often gaining fresh perspective and insight on their current situation. Traditional tools for wellness in health care have often focused on mental health, which creates a stigma for those seeking assistance. Working with a coach creates a sense of camaraderie, with a joint effort to move towards the desired goal. 

As I proceed along this journey of coaching, I will continue to advocate for my colleagues in medicine. While I can not control the environmental factors, I can assist those dealing with them to find strategies to succeed. I am optimistic that, over time, more attention will be given to coaching as a resource for addressing issues of burnout in medicine.

Susan Wilson is an emergency physician and physician coach.

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