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Physician Health Program offers compassion, encourages doctors to practice self-compassion

Roxanne Joyce, Physician Health Program Manager of Clinical Services

The theme of this year’s Mental Health Week (May 6-12) is centered on the healing power of compassion, something researchers have been studying for the past decade. Longitudinal studies on the impacts of compassion on mental health indicate that giving and receiving compassion, along with practicing self-compassion, can result in substantial benefits.

Roxanne Joyce, Physician Health Program (PHP)’s Manager of Clinical Services, doesn’t need to study the scientific findings to know compassion can improve a person’s wellbeing. Not only does she have a background in clinical counselling, but she sees the impacts firsthand as she and her team work with physicians across the country, including Prince Edward Island.

“Compassion is all about noticing the suffering of another person and being motivated to alleviate it,” Roxanne said. “Physicians are generally very good at demonstrating compassion for others; after all, it is an important healthcare characteristic. Self-compassion is harder to practice, and we often see physicians putting their own mental health on the back burner.”

The PHP was created to support practicing and retired physicians, medical learners, and their families. It offers confidential services, a 24/7 support line, physician peer support group, and referrals and counselling for physical and mental health issues, plus a wide range of other concerns from relationship challenges to career transitions, financial issues, burnout, and occupational health questions.

“Our vision is to support a healthy, empowered physician community and be a trusted service in times of need,” Roxanne said. “By helping physicians to be well themselves, we enable them to deliver great care to their patients and to live lives of fulfillment.”

“Every single person on our clinical team is an expert in physicians’ health and they take what they do very seriously. Their background and training ensures they can provide the best support to all physicians who access our services,” Roxanne said. “Our team is incredibly passionate, and although we are based in British Columbia and our history is in supporting BC physicians, every member of my team has a compassionate spot in their hearts for PEI physicians. We truly recognize the challenges of working in a small province and having a limited number of physicians to serve the wider community. We also recognize the barriers there might be to accessing support. We feel grateful they are comfortable accessing our program.”

The problem with seeking support and practicing self-compassion is that it’s not as easy as being compassionate with others. When Island physicians were surveyed about self-care, many identified volunteering as the preferred self-care activity, rather than something solely focused on themselves. Roxanne explains part of the reason for that is it can be difficult for people to admit when they need help. There are still stigmas surrounding mental health issues and physicians are used to being the ones to provide care, not ask for it.

In the Canadian Medical Association’s National Physician Health Survey, 64 per cent of PEI respondents reported feeling ashamed as a barrier to seeking support, compared to 47 per cent nationally.

“What we’re seeing statistically, and this is affirmed in what we experience with our clients, is that the average PEI physician — 7 out of 10 — are feeling burnt out and almost the same number are ashamed to seek help,” Roxanne said. “I think it’s really important for those numbers to be heard, because I think the average PEI physician sometimes isn’t aware of those numbers and they feel alone, isolated, and overwhelmed. The one thing I hope to get through to PEI physicians is they deserve to receive the same great level of care that they provide to their patients.”

Physicians who access PHP often submit testimonials due to the impact the program has had on their lives. Despite the years she’s worked in this field, Roxanne said she still gets emotional when she reads some of the comments.

“Every year we have someone who says ‘I wish I would’ve accessed your program five years ago’ and, unfortunately, there is a lot of empirical research out there that shows by the time a physician reaches out for support, it’s five to ten years later than they should have,” she said. “When they do connect, they’re often in a poor, multiple dimensional state, meaning their work life isn’t going well, their personal life isn’t going well, and their personal health isn’t good. If there was one message I could get through to physicians is that you do not need to be at rock bottom to call us. Think of our programs as a way to proactively get support, to maintain or improve your health and wellbeing, and to show yourself a little kindness and compassion.”

MSPEI is proud to offer health and wellness programs like the Physician Health Program to its physician members. We know how important it is for physicians to take care of themselves first before they can take care of others.

Learn more about MSPEI’s health and wellness offerings for physicians: https://www.mspei.org/physician-health-and-wellness/