Physician heroes: Healing the healers

Friday, January 01, 2016 12:20 PM
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Doris C. Gundersen, MD, helps get physicians back to health and practice

by Kate Alfano, CMS Communications Coordinator

Doris Gundersen, MD

New statistics on physician burnout are grim. A December 2015 study from the Mayo Clinic shows that physician burn-out rates in the United States increased from 2011 to 2014 and the gap between physician burnout rates and burnout rates in the normal population widened. In 2014, 54.4 percent of physicians admitted to at least one symptom of burnout, up from 45.5 percent in 2011, with emotional exhaustion being the most common symptom. Thirty-nine percent of physicians screened positive for depression and the rate of suicidal ideation jumped from 4 percent to 7.2 percent from 2011 to 2014. Nearly half of physicians, 44.5 percent, reported their work schedule does not leave enough time for personal or family life.

Fortunately, Colorado physicians have a tremendous resource to help them when their emotional, mental or physical health suffers – the Colorado Physician Health Program (CPHP). And this issue’s Physician Hero honoree, CPHP Medical Director Doris C. Gundersen, MD, is enthusiastically committed to promoting the health and wellbeing of physicians and physician assistants through evaluation, treatment referral, support, education and research.

Gundersen has worked with CPHP since 2000 and became their medical director in 2009. Board-certified in psychiatry and neurology and trained in forensics and addiction, she works within CPHP’s clinical team environment to lead, listen, direct and maintain focus on returning physicians – the healers themselves – to health. “The challenges of caring for those who care for others are vast and often go unobserved,” her nominator wrote. “Without any need for recognition, Dr. Gundersen continues to persist in this challenging pursuit, and gives her time, energy and extensive knowledge to physicians in need.”

Gundersen evaluates and monitors physician-clients who contact CPHP for support and supervises a clinical team of experts comprised of five other psychiatrists and five master-level clinicians. Together they serve all physicians, residents and medical students by providing comprehensive health evaluations, directing participants to treatment providers with the requisite expertise and supporting physician participants as they recover from illness or stressful circumstances.

“CPHP is important because healthy physicians provide better patient care,” Gundersen said. “Our research has demonstrated that healthy physicians have lower malpractice risk. CPHP provides a safe haven for physicians. Specifically, if physicians come to us for help, they do not need to disclose their medical problems to the regulatory agency. We provide strict confidentiality.”

It was her work in private practice treating physicians that drew her to the organization, as she recognized the unique demands medical professionals face. “I understood that CPHP was committed to improving the lives of those physicians who were struggling with stress, burnout, addiction or other downstream consequences of overwork and poor self-care,” Gundersen said. “It could not have been a better match for me.”

Since its inception, CPHP has helped more than 4,600 physicians and each physician Gundersen has worked with has inspired her with his or her courage, resilience and determination. She recalled one physician who sustained a serious head injury while bike riding in the mountains. “Her rehabilitation, both physically and cognitively, was hard, painful and protracted,” Gundersen said. “She was unable to practice for a year. Despite this loss, she always maintained a sense of humor and confidence that she would return to practice, and she did. After almost losing the privilege to practice medicine due to illness, she developed this amazing gratitude for her recovery and is one of the happiest doctors I know.”

Gundersen recognizes how intimidating it can be for physicians to seek help. They’re taught to be healers, educators or caretakers – not patients. “Where the joy for me comes in is watching these terrified, depressed physicians get empowered, love their work again and be healthy,” Gundersen said. “There’s not a greater reward than to see my colleagues get back into action and be happy with their choices.”

She continues to maintain a private adult psychiatry practice and a forensic practice specializing in independent medical evaluations and threat assessment. She was also appointed to the Attorney Regulation Committee of the Colorado Supreme Court where she provides clinical input concerning attorneys who may have health problems and are potentially facing discipline; she helps the courts and juries understand psychiatric illness and how it may impact the behavior, choices and judgment of citizens on trial; and she advocates for mental health care in the prison system.

Gundersen chairs the CMS Committee on Physician Wellness and helped develop CMS’ physician wellness toolkit that was launched in September 2014. The toolkit addresses the eight dimensions of wellness with a focus on stress and burnout. Go to to download the toolkit. Learn more about CPHP at

Editor’s note: The Colorado Medical Society recognizes the prevalence of burnout among physicians, particularly in this time of great change in health care. To help our members reflect on the meaningful difference they’re making in the lives of their patients and community and to recognize extraordinary actions, Colorado Medicine launched the Physician Heroes series. We will profile as many different members as we can who have gone above and beyond in the profession to help their colleagues or community. We hope you’ll see your own values reflected in these stories and be reminded of the joy of medicine.

Members are invited to nominate themselves or a colleague by contacting Dean Holzkamp at or 303-748-6113 or Kate Alfano at

Posted in: Colorado Medicine | Initiatives | Physician Wellness


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