Supporting Peers through Difficult Situations

A peer-to-peer interaction after an incident can be a chance to vent some of the stress immediately.
Two doctors talking

This established, confidential program offers clinicians same-day support from a peer during difficult or crisis situations. Whether formal or informal, peer connections can help clinicians manage the emotional effects of trauma and stress.

Intense and unexpected circumstances are routine for those involved in health care, yet ignoring the emotional effects of trauma and stress can contribute to burnout, psychological distress and career dissatisfaction. Talking with a peer, whether formally or informally, can help clinicians reduce or avoid the possibility of a difficult event negatively affecting their professional and personal lives.

At UMass Memorial Health and UMass Chan Medical School, the Clinician Experience Office supplements those informal peer interactions with its organized 28-member Peer Support Network. For the last 15 years, this free, confidential program has been available to physicians, nurses, administrators and any other clinicians who ask for help, although often a colleague or supervisor will alert the CXO of someone who may need assistance. The trigger is usually an unanticipated or poor patient outcome, a lawsuit, traumatic personal event or other negative circumstance that an individual is having difficulty dealing with.

“After more than two years of being on the front lines of the pandemic, PTSD, burnout and suicidality are alarmingly common among health care professionals,” said Steven Bird, MD, FACEP, FACMT, Clinician Experience Officer. “One of the biggest challenges is that people are generally bad at asking for help, even when they need it most. And physicians are often even worse at it. Because of that, we reach out to people when we become aware of a difficult situation, so they don’t have to ask for assistance. We go directly to them with this support.” 

Offering support proactively

While one-on-one wellness coaching for physicians requires a big commitment from both coaches and participants, the Peer Support Network is a different model.

The Clinician Experience Office pairs the person with peer support within a day, ideally within a couple of hours of a difficult situation arising. Typically, it’s a one-time meeting, although there may be a check-in to follow up. If the person is having difficulty at that time, the peer support volunteer can help identify next steps and assist in finding appropriate resources. The Clinician Experience Office doesn’t track who has requested or received support.

“Having that peer-to-peer interaction — and having it quickly on the heels of an incident — offers the chance to vent some of the stress immediately. And the connection can make a difference in someone’s willingness to seek ongoing assistance when it’s needed,” Bird said. “When you’re talking with another clinician, you know they’re just as steeped in the day-to-day struggles of being in health care as you are. They understand what it’s like to be in similar types of crisis situations.”

Noticing warning signs

A clinician providing peer support, whether as part of a program or not, should be an active listener and ask questions to give the person an outlet for self-expression, Bird said. This can also help assess whether additional support may be needed and what that might look like. The National Alliance on Mental Illness recommends seeking more assistance if you or a colleague experience warning signs such as:

  • Feeling irritable or angry
  • Experiencing anxiety, depression, loneliness or constant sadness
  • Having thoughts of harming yourself
  • Reliving traumatic events
  • Isolating yourself
  • Lacking trust in others
  • Experiencing compassion fatigue, burnout or moral injury
  • Getting too much or not enough sleep
  • Adding or increasing use of alcohol or other substances
  • Experiencing physical issues such as digestive or appetite problems, more aches and pains, sexual or reproductive issues, and executive function and memory problems

Bird emphasizes that it’s important to check in with a colleague who has experienced a traumatic incident — there’s no need to wait for warning signs. Encourage the person to take advantage of a formal peer support program if it’s available. While Bird has seen a decrease in referrals to his office as the pandemic has waned, requests continue on a steady basis. In the last three months of 2021, his office received requests for a peer counselor at least once per week. Earlier in the pandemic, requests were coming in every day. 

“The effects are hard to measure since the program affects a small number of people and is designed to be a check-in rather than a full counseling program,” Bird said. “There are no records kept. It’s simply an opportunity to talk with someone within a few hours of a potentially upsetting or disturbing situation — and it can make a tremendous difference.”

Physicians and medical students throughout the U.S. can receive free, confidential emotional support via the Physician Support Line, which is staffed by a volunteer network of psychiatrists. Call 888-409-0141, 8 am to 1 am ET, seven days a week.

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