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Doctors helping doctors - stories from the Physician Health Program

April 18, 2017

*Names have been changed to protect confidentiality of the physicians who were interviewed for this story.

Dr Smith* is a mid-career physician who found herself facing a health scare. At first, she responded to the news in an analytical and calm way. Before she realized it, the worry and stress started to show, impacting her life at work and at home. Like many physicians, she found that recognizing the warning signs of trouble and seeking help did not come easily. 

“It’s ironic in some ways that every day we ask our patients to trust us – to trust another person, to be open, to be honest and to be vulnerable,” said Dr Smith. “And I think as physicians, we need to learn to do that because if we don’t, we actually can’t do a good job of taking care of our patients.”

At a loss as to what to do, she contacted the Physician Health Program (PHP) offered through the Doctors of BC. The PHP provides professional counselling and medical support for physicians to help with mental health issues, burnout, relationship stress, workplace conflicts and much more.  

“I think the hardest part initially is just to reach out, pick up the phone and talk to somebody you don’t know,” said Dr Smith. “When I did reach out they were incredibly supportive. Actually talking to a real life person who was there to do nothing but support me in an anonymous way was all I could ask for.”     

Dr Jones* was at a completely different phase of his career when he called the Physician Health Program. He was in his final year of residency when high stress led to feelings of anxiety.

“It’s really, really common to feel stressed out during residency. One common theme is the question of competence. That’s a big thing in residency, not feeling like you’re ever good enough.”

“I would say that probably all residents feel this way to some degree,” he added. “Not everybody talks about it, and people deal with it in different ways.”

Staff at the Physician Health Program stepped in to help upon receiving his call. An intake counsellor listened to his story and set up a series of appointments with a psychologist who really helped him get through a tough period. He said he’s already recommended the PHP to others at least three times, that’s how much the supports helped him.

PHPWhile Dr Jones sought help during his early professional years, Dr Lee* found he was struggling as he headed into retirement. The pressures of winding up a practice and starting a new phase of life brought him to a crisis point. He had managed depression throughout much of his life, but found it really frightening to think about letting go of work. To make matters more challenging, he had recently moved to a new community where he didn’t have a family doctor or a strong support system.

“Those of us who go into medicine,” said Dr Lee, “we tend to be very perfectionist, we want to do everything right, we’ve got very high standards. We’re hard on ourselves.”

“Calling PHP really made a difference. It was instant, like a lifeline – like seeing a life preserver on a boat,” he said. “The quality of the program and the questions the counsellor asked, I felt helped immediately by having the feeling of validation. It was a really powerful thing… it felt like Cadillac care.”

Whatever stage you are at in your medical career, the Physician Health Program is here to help. “Our goal is to help you be the best, healthiest and most resilient person you can be – for yourself, for your family and for your patients,” said Dr Andrew Clarke, Executive Director of the program.

The Physician Health Program is available 24-hours/day, seven days a week. All you need to do is call 1-800-663-6729. A clinician is there to help you, and will work with you to set up a plan of action.

The program is funded jointly by Doctors of BC and the Ministry of Health, but operates independently of both. It offers support to all BC physicians, medical students and residents, as well at their partners and dependent children. All information shared with the PHP is completely confidential.

For more information, click here to access the new Physician Health Program web site.