What is Physician Peer Coaching

Posted on May 11, 2016 by Liz Ferron, MSW, LICSW

Updated June 18, 2020

Peer Coaches Understand the Issues

Peer Coach Handshake“Watch one, do one, teach one” is a medical school philosophy healthcare organizations adopt for knowledge transfer beyond surgical techniques. Physicians not only prefer learning from other doctors—they learn better when peers are doing the teaching, coaching and mentoring.1 Peer coaching is an effective way to learn new skills to support well being.

“A physician coach is going to understand what the physician is trying to do and the implications if he or she can’t get it right,” says Deb Wood, senior consultant for VITAL WorkLife. “This lessens the level of stress and motivates the physician to master new skills.”

Many physicians are reluctant to ask for help—yet they can be in desperate need of a compassionate listener who understands the work, personal and family challenges. Or they can help improve skills for personal or professional reasons. Physician objectives vary:

  • Leadership development to support career goals
  • Understanding the Wheel of Well Being and dimensions of holistic health
  • Well being lifestyle changes
  • Stress and burnout management and resiliency

Emotional Intelligence Transfer

In the same way doctors know the basics of medicine after training, they also know the basics of work/life balance; the need to eat well and time for rest and exercise—they just don’t know how to apply this knowledge in their hectic lives.

“It’s almost impossible to retain a physician who’s totally burned out and hates coming to work each day—and why would you want that person seeing your patients?” says Michelle Mudge-Riley, DO, MHA, a physician peer coach for VITAL WorkLife.

Many healthcare leaders are uncomfortable intervening when a doctor who is still productive simply appears unhappy or stressed. “Given how good doctors are at disguising and minimizing their problems, it’s particularly important to watch for and know how to address those early signs,” notes Mudge-Riley.

Some healthcare organizations—Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital is a good example—offer peer support through in-house programs. However, rather than developing their own program, and to overcome physician fears over confidentiality and licensing issues, an increasing number of organizations are relying on third-party providers.

Physician peer coaches are often recommended and used for physicians who have been through an intervention. Having a coach to speak with regarding challenges that may otherwise derail their progress on problematic behaviors can be valuable to physicians who have struggled with work or personal issues impacting their work performance.

Even though the peer coach is a physician, the coaching and mentoring relationship is not a doctor/patient relationship and does not include prescriptions, medication management or psychotherapy.

Physicians should be referred for peer coaching when exhibiting:

  • Unusual levels of stress
  • Increased frustration or anger at work
  • Grief and loss
  • Challenges in managing administrative or other practice-related tasks
  • Communication difficulties with other staff members or administration
  • Relationship issues at work and their personal lives
  • Difficulty balancing the demands of family and practicing medicine
  • Interest in developing leadership skills to advance career

While mentoring is considered an essential component of business careers and medical school training, it’s rarely available to doctors and surgeons in practice—even though having a mentor is strongly related to overall job satisfaction according to a 2005 study by the University of Pennsylvania Medical School.2,3 For organizations without a mentoring program, having physician peer coaches available can help fill some of those needs by offering access to an experienced, objective professional who can be a good sounding board fro questions and concerns.

Here are a few practical ways in which physician peer coaching can help address common problems affecting physicians under stress, read these case studies.

1 Entezami Pouya, Franzblau Lauren E., Chung Kevin C., “Mentorship in surgical training: a systematic review,” HAND, March 2012
2 Hoover, E.L. “Mentoring surgeons in private and academic practice,” Archives of Surgery, June 2005
3 Wasserstein AG, Quistberg DA, Shea JA, “Mentoring at the University of Pennsylvania: results of a faculty survey,” Journal of General Internal Medicine, February, 2007.

We Can Help

To learn more about Physician Peer Coaching contact us online, or if you're a member of our Physician. Well Being Resources solution, give us a call at 877.731.3949 to get started with your Peer Coach.

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