One of the most memorable times from my family medicine training days, was the annual residency my intern year. It was the year of the World Cup, and a bonding experience that would later save my life. Being able to be with not only my residency class, but also the faculty in a relaxed and empowering environment brought a sense of safety that allowed me to reach out to one of my classmates less than a year later when I was a pill bottle away from taking my own life. I was fortunate, as I know physicians who didn’t make it because they felt they didn’t have support. So many residents and even practicing physicians for that matter who do not have access to an environment (work or otherwise) where they feel safe to be vulnerable about what we are really dealing with. Furthermore, most physicians simply do not have an outlet for when they are feeling alone and hopeless. However, new avenues and outlets are beginning to arise and research is finding some statistical significance to their benefits.
Group physician retreats and physician coaching are two such things. Mindfulness programs have been shown in several studies to decrease burnout and improve well-being in physicians. Furthermore, Family Medicine Journal published a study in 2015 that showed statistical difference between residency retreats and self care curriculum in residencies. Additionally, Academic Medicine journal published a study in February 2016, showing a benefit to clinical coaching in early career hospitalists, positively impacting clinical decision making, confidence, and improved personal perception of the quality of care they delivered. This suggests that while there is still much research to be done with regard to these types of interventions, that implementing physician retreats and physician coaching into existing (or non-existing) physician wellness programs could be a much needed innovative and effective strategies to combat the continued rising dilemma of burnout.
Besides the budding research done in this area, there are some known benefits to retreats in general. As physicians we are constantly on a mental and physical treadmill that leaves little to no room for the brain to be aware of, create or absorb anything new. Retreats interrupt that process, through abrupt change of pace and scenery. The relaxed environment and often, small intimate group setting creates a safe space for awareness, exploration, and implementation of new practices. Furthermore, retreats provide time for reflection as well as bonding with other similarly oriented people. So why are we not doing more of this?
Our industry is one that is grounded on only validating interventions based on evidence; which means it’s not valid unless there is research to back it. This is a serious potential pitfall. While we are busy researching whether or not physician wellness coaching or physician retreats are effective strategies for burnout, the prevalence of physician burnout and physician suicide will continue to rise. Physicians will continue experience burnout, some will quit medicine, and others will kill themselves. The bottom line: It is important to consider implementing new innovative strategies in the battle of burnout, as we simultaneously study them, rather than wait until there is sufficient evidence to “prove them worthy.” With nearly 1 out of 2 physicians experiencing burnout (Medscape 2017 Physician Lifestyle Report & Mayo Clinic Proceedings), innovative solutions to burnout like physician wellness retreats and peer physician coaching should be highly considered and gladly welcomed.