'Doctors just keep working': 2 London, Ont., physicians battle burnout

Dr. Andrea Lum and Dr. Laura Foxcroft of the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry at Western University have created a program to address physician burnout.

The Peers For Peers program may soon be introduced at other hospitals across Canada

Dr. Andrea Lum is vice dean of faculty affairs at Western University's Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry. (Submitted by Dr. Andrea Lum)

Burnout in the health-care sector is a long-standing issue.

But long hours, a labour shortage, and an eroding trust in the system among some members of the public mean it has only worsened during the pandemic.

Now, a pair of physicians in London, Ont., have developed a program to address burnout and encourage other doctors to seek the help they need.

The Peers For Peers Program at the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry at Western University was developed by Andrea Lum, vice dean of faculty affairs, and Laura Foxcroft, assistant dean of faculty well-being.

Here's part of their conversation with Afternoon Drive host Chris dela Torre, edited for length and clarity.

How did this program come about?

Lum: Back in 2020, we barely knew the name of COVID and didn't have the resources to help our physicians one on one. We decided that we needed to do something, and do something very quickly. We recruited 17 leads from every clinical department to help ourselves. Laura leads and sustains the program. We've gone from 17 well-being peer supports to now over 50 or so.

Tell us a bit more about how it works.

Foxcroft: It works by faculty reaching out to a peer. We found that faculty physicians really relate to their peers when they were discussing the troubles that they were having during the pandemic. They're trained by local resources here at Schulich through our continuing professional development office. Our faculty reaches out to them when they're in distress or when things are bothering them and they provide empathetic listening.

Partway through this pandemic, we noticed that physicians were getting quite tired and weren't necessarily reaching out to our peer supporters as much. We encouraged our peer supporters to reach out to our physicians just to check in, make sure they were doing well.

Dr. Laura Foxcroft is assistant dean of faculty well-being at the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry. (Submitted by Dr. Laura Foxcroft)

Aside from the physical exhaustion, what does burnout look and feel like for these physicians?

Foxcroft: They're physically tired, but there's also moral injury that's happened during the pandemic. There has been some institutional distrust, and that'll be something that we look at more academically to see just where our burnout levels are at. The Canadian Medical Association just released a paper that shows that in 2017, our national level of burnout in physicians was at 30 per cent. They just released new data from the fall of 2021 that shows it's now over 50 per cent. And half of all physicians are considering cutting back in their practice just because of this.

That's a staggering number. Dr. Lum, if more than 50 per cent of physicians are burned out, what does that say about Canadian health care?

Lum: Well, Canadian health care has really been under-resourced for a long time. You may have heard about an announcement in Ontario on increasing training for medical schools right across the province, and even starting a new medical school in Ontario. It's been such a long time coming.

Doctors just keep working. It is part of our professional career. It's part of the oath that we have taken. You all know that we have long wait times and lists. Well, what does one do when you're faced with these queues of patients needing care? Doctors just keep working and they work longer hours and sometimes to the detriment of their own personal health. But if a doctor is not well, then they're not able to provide that safe, quality clinical care for their patients.

When you say 'doctors just keep working,' that really says something about the work culture. Dr. Foxcroft, what barriers are still in place for physicians when it comes to even just talking about their own mental health?

Foxcroft: Barriers still exist when it comes to discussing mental health. Physicians are no different than the general population in this. We're still breaking down those barriers, but it hasn't been the norm within our profession to set limits and prioritize our own mental well-being.

Dr. Lum, the program the two of you have developed is starting to roll out at other hospitals across the country. What do you make of that?

Lum: We're so delighted to be able to help others. We've been speaking to people across the country — West Coast, East Coast. We're training more than 50 other physicians and we're in the process of speaking to many others. Everybody is a little bit different in their community and in their journey. And so as we can help others, that's given us a very warm feeling for accomplishing some things for our peers.

While helping others during the pandemic, health care workers have faced their own stress and burnout. Host Chris dela Torre speaks with Dr. Andrea Lum and Dr. Laura Foxcroft - two doctors from Western's Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry who developed a program to help other physicians access mental health support.