Writing for Wellness

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In March 2023, nine physicians who care for cancer patients gathered for a three-day writing retreat in a beautiful retreat centre in the rainforest of the west coast of BC. The goal of the session, which included palliative care physicians, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, and psychiatrists, was to provide a safe space to explore the complex emotional landscape of working with illness, death, and grief through the creative process of writing. VPSA’s Small Steps, Big Idea provided funding for project planning and meals.

“At the start of the pandemic, as we saw the levels of physician distress rise, the Callanish Society started a writing group for physicians caring for patients with cancer,” recalled Dr. Catherine Courteau, a palliative care physician. “Over the next two years, we discovered that this bimonthly writing group had a profound effect on the wellness of the physicians involved—mostly, a shared sense of community and deep gratitude for a safe space to share the complexities of their work. After the success of this first initiative, we looked for ways to offer a residential writing retreat and turned to VPSA for project funding.”

To evaluate the success of the retreat in addressing physician wellness, participants completed the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) before and immediately after the retreat, as well as three months later. Seven of nine physicians completed all three surveys.

“Our benchmark for success was a statistically significant decrease in MBI scores after the retreat,” said Dr. Courteau. “This was the case for emotional exhaustion pre- and immediately post-retreat, but not when comparing the pre- and three-month post-retreat scores. There was a significant reduction in depersonalization scores both immediately after the retreat and three months later. There was no change to scores related to personal accomplishment.”

Dr. Courteau was especially pleased that all seven of the surveyed physicians gave the question of “would they recommend the retreat to a colleague,” a net promotor score of 10 out of 10. Participants expressed their appreciation for being able to share their “personal truths and wounds,” and having them “heard in a caring circle.” Dr. Courteau noted that many of the physicians, who came from four health authorities as well as four different health-care specialties, have remained in contact. This, she hopes, is a sign that they are creating a lasting supportive physician community.

“Over half of the participants reported high burnout before the retreat, especially high emotional exhaustion,” commented Dr. Courteau. “Although there was a decrease in this immediately after the retreat, it was only significant in the short term. That tells us we need to work on providing better tools to maintain low emotional exhaustion scores. We’re thinking, for example, of adding an ongoing monthly writing group or providing resources so participants can do this themselves.”

Dr. Courteau is already planning a follow-up retreat. Every physician who attended the 2023 retreat has expressed their intention to return in 2024. Insights gained from the initial retreat will be used to improve the model.

“We are very grateful to VPSA for the Small Steps, Big Idea grant that allowed us to offer the writing retreat,” she said.

Photo: Janie Brown and Catherine Courteau, co-leaders of the Callanish Physician Writing Retreat.

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