Division using funding to tackle systemic barriers to wellness

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Like their colleagues in other divisions and departments, physicians working in General Internal Medicine are experiencing high levels of burnout. The division head, Dr. Nadia Khan, has made physician wellness a division priority and appointed Dr. Lawrence Chow as wellness champion for the VGH group.

“Our approach has been to differentiate between burnout and wellness,” said Dr. Chow, who identified four other colleagues at VGH to be part of a GIM wellness committee at the hospital. “When you’re already burned out, you’ve missed the mark. We want to improve our workplace and our social wellbeing, so we all feel connected and bring energy to work. We want our colleagues to be thriving—not just surviving.”

Dr. Chow notes that he and his colleagues are addressing wellness at both the individual and systemic levels.

“We have more control over the personal level interventions. One successful initiative has been the development of commensality groups,” he said. “Six to eight physicians get together once a month to discuss a predetermined topic about the virtues and challenges of being a physician over a shared meal. The feedback has been excellent, and nearly half of the division has taken part. Many have told me how surprised they were about how meaningful these conversations were and how energizing they found them.”

The VGH GIM wellness committee has also made inroads on improving the work environment by celebrating each other’s life events: e.g., marriages, the birth of children, or self-isolation during the pandemic.

Addressing systemic level barriers to wellness is a much more difficult job. And that’s where VPSA comes in. Dr. Chow and his committee are receiving funding to bring together division members to identify barriers to wellness and fulfillment in facilitated focus groups, along with funding for the time required to design and test interventions to address these factors.

“Systemic barriers are the real issues burning out physicians,” said Dr. Chow. “We need to reshape the health-care system and change the work culture. This includes things such as excessive workloads, inefficient work processes, constant distractions, a lack of control/autonomy, and the toxic hustle culture and machoism that can exist in the medical field.

Once the committee has identified the local systemic issues contributing to the group’s burnout, it will engage with senior leadership at VCH to come up with robust, long-term solutions.

“Our senior leaders want to be involved and to help,” added Dr. Chow. “There has been a shift to prioritize physician wellness and we need to strike while the iron is hot. We’re grateful to VPSA both for the funding as well as for connecting us with senior leaders who can help make change happen.”

Dr. Chow is passionate about this project.

“Before I took on the role of wellness champion, I was just another physician in a big hospital who felt powerless,” he said. “I see colleagues struggling and not wanting to be in that position. I want to improve our work environment and feel connected to my colleagues. This work has given me an awareness and an opportunity to make a meaningful impact.”

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