Unique peer-to-peer support program at med and dentistry school aims to curb burnout

A unique peer-to-peer program at Western's Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry has colleagues checking in on each other's mental health and wellbeing.

The peer support program launched at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic

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

A unique peer-to-peer program at Western's Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry has colleagues checking in on each other's mental health and well-being. 

The program was spearheaded by Dr. Andrea Lum, who in January 2020 was hired as the school's vice dean of clinical faculty affairs, and was hoping to implement the program in 2021. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and changed everything. The program was up and running by March 2020, and is the first of its kind in Canada. 

"Physicians tend not to dial in. It's very hard for them to admit there is a problem, so if you're truly going to help them, then you need something that makes sense to them," said Lum. "What we know is that the well-being of the physicians who care for patients is a direct line to the quality of patient care. It's not complex." 

The Peers for Peers program offers support through empathetic listening and shared experience. Well-being leaders check in on their colleagues to make sure they're doing okay, and faculty members can also reach out to other faculty members to make sure they're coping. 

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The faculty members teach future doctors and dentists, and are also clinicians at local hospitals and clinics. 

"If we feel that our faculty members' lives matter, then we need to have a program to care for ourselves, because the incentive is that health and well-being are linked to quality and safe patient care." 

Burnout very real

The school has trained 17 "well-being leads," people among the faculty who can act as an empathetic ear or resource person. Those people can be contacted for informal chats, but they also reach out to their colleagues, sometimes when they sense something might be wrong, and other times just because. 

The issues that concerned physicians during the first wave of COVID-19 were things such as lack of personal protective equipment and worry about bringing the virus home to family members, Lum said.

"In the first wave there was a lot of unknown, a lot of concern that we didn't know what this pandemic would look like, an a lot of anxiety about families and about their own mental resilience," Lum said. "The second wave, people a lot more tired." 

Confidentiality was of the utmost importance for the program, so there are built-in safeguards so people feel comfortable talking to their peers, she added.