by Scott Humphreys, MD, Medical Director Colorado Physician Health Program (CPHP)

As physicians, we are trained to do many extraordinary things. We are very aware of our exclusive abilities to diagnose a patient’s ailment and harness the wonders of modern medicine to give them their life back as well as years that come after that. But the long-standing tradition of medical training and practice is that we do so as an island of calm, unaffected by all that we wrestle with. To quote the pioneer of modern medical education, Sir William Osler, imperturbability.

Over the course of almost 40 years, the Colorado Physician Health Program (CPHP) has evaluated over 6,000 Colorado physicians. This experience shows, time after time, in just about every case seen, physicians are affected. We are affected by malpractice stress, our changing practice environments, staffing issues, bureaucratic requirements, and the list goes on. Beyond that, we are also humans. We are vulnerable to everything that affects our fellow humans: depression, life changes, divorce/breakups, financial issues, strained relationships, aging parents, our children’s challenges, job security, and psychiatric illness including substance disorders.

For most of us, some of our most important relationships are with our colleagues. We have practiced together for years and shared triumphs and losses. Our educational backgrounds are similar, and we usually have a lot in common. Regardless of how intimate you consider these relationships with colleagues, they are important to you, and you are important to them.

It is common to only begin to worry about our fellow doctors when it seems their work is affected. This is way too late!

Work, especially patient care, is the last thing to be impacted when one of us is struggling. The most consistent thing to look out for is a change in behavior. Often, this involves withdrawing from social interactions. When someone appears not themselves and distant, that is the time to reach out.

Keep in mind, you are an important relationship to your colleague. You may not be best friends in the traditional sense, but you are sharing your lives. Please reach out, invite them for a cup of coffee or another break. It is sometimes difficult to ask someone about their life and it can feel intrusive. But they may be in a place where they feel they have no one to talk to. It may be your caring and supportive outreach that makes the difference between ongoing suffering and finally seeking the help they know they need. Helping a struggling colleague is one of the most important and unique things we can do as physicians.

Also, keep in mind you are not alone in this, please reach out to us at CPHP. We are here to help.

Categories: Communications, Colorado Medicine, Resources, Initiatives, Physician Wellbeing Resource Center