For an employee, a workplace wellness program might seem like a nice perk. But doctors in the UW School of Medicine believe it’s much more than that.
“An emphasis on wellness is a must-have, not a nice-to-have,” said Norman Beauchamp, head of the Department of Radiology.
In 2012, Dr. Beauchamp helped launch the School of Medicine’s Wellness Committee with co-chair Claudia Finkelstein, a clinical associate professor at Harborview Medical Center (Dr. Finkelstein is now the sole chair). The committee works to promote a holistic view of wellness, focusing not only on physical fitness but also on mindfulness, recognition, peer support, and socialization.
Growing up, Dr. Beauchamp was asked three questions by his mother at dinner each night: How was your day? What was your highlight? And did you accomplish your goals?
“Those three questions have guided my philosophy about wellness,” Dr. Beauchamp said. “I know that people struggle, and that it’s important to ask them how they’re doing and care about the answer. And in a world that struggles, you have to celebrate success. To keep having those successes, you have to be goal-focused.”
Still, he didn’t fully grasp the importance of wellness until 2010, when a colleague in the Department of Radiology, Dr. Robert Bree, took his own life. Dr. Beauchamp went to the wake and met Dr. Bree’s father, who was confused by his son’s death.
“He said, ‘This doesn’t make sense, I need you to do something about it,'” Dr. Beauchamp recalled. “I didn’t have any experience in suicide, but I decided I needed to learn more about it, and ensure that such a horrible thing didn’t happen again.”
But just two months later, the School of Medicine lost another member to suicide: a second-year medical student named John Franklin Dorsey.
These two events revealed to Dr. Beauchamp a “bimodal peak in the journey of healthcare”: suicide appeared to be more common at the start and finish of a physician’s career.
The pressure starts in medical school, where 10 percent of students have suicidal thoughts. The main reason? Burnout. Symptoms include physical and mental exhaustion, a diminished sense of accomplishment, and a feeling of ineffectiveness. Half of medical students say they experience burnout.
“There’s incredible stress,” Dr. Beauchamp said. “You’re trying to afford school, you’re working, you’re trying to figure out your future path.”
But burnout often continues after medical school. Around 60 percent of physicians working in emergency medicine experience it, and suicide is the only cause of death that affects doctors more than other professions. Male physicians are 40 percent more likely to take their own life than the general population; the figure soars to 130 percent for women.
When physicians aren’t well, the people they’re treating are at risk. Burnout can lead to poor judgment, medical errors, and even hostility toward patients. Dr. Beauchamp and his team developed a wellness program within the Department of Radiology to prevent these problems from ever occurring. Take a look at it and see what you can incorporate into your own department.
UW Radiology’s Top 10 Wellness Tactics/Initiatives
- As chair, be a steward of hope. “To say, ‘Yeah, there are a lot of tough things. But we can do it, and we’ll do it together,’” Dr. Beauchamp said.
- Peer support program. “If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you can reach out to someone and get support. My mom taught me as a kid that you have to ask people how their day went and care about the answer.”
- No Faculty Left Behind mentorship program. “Every single assistant professor has a mentor.”
- Leadership support and training program. “I start each meeting with, ‘How are you doing?’ and ‘Are you taking care of yourself?’
- Fitness. “We have a Couch-to-5K program where we have our sitters learn to walk, our walkers to jog, and our joggers to run.”
- Celebrate the faculty. “The first 10 minutes of our faculty meeting is recognizing all the great things people do. I ask all the people who are in leadership roles to write three hand-written letters to faculty, celebrating all the great things that they do.”
- Mindfulness. “Stress reduction. Claudia Finkelstein has been such a leader for us on this.”
- THE interview question. “When I interview my team, I say ‘How is the department better because you passed through?’ We all go to work or go to school and say, ‘Why’s it gotta be like that? That’s irritating!’ Instead of cursing the darkness, Gandhi said light a candle. If something frustrates you, bring it forward.”
- Help make it an institutional priority. “Our three chairs presented this to our dean to make it a priority, and he embraced it.”
- Practice what you preach. “Take care of yourself. Take time for family, take time for friends, take time for fitness.”
What makes this program so special is that every member of the team is encouraged to shape it. Faculty, staff, and trainees brainstorm and present ideas for fitness and recognition, and their supervisors listen and execute those ideas. As a result, Dr. Beauchamp says, everybody has a hand in steering the ship.
“If everybody sees themselves as a leader — because everybody is — then there’s no limit to what can happen in any organization,” he said. “There’s no reason why things can’t be wonderful.”
Dr. Beauchamp is the Medical Director of the Seattle/King County Clinic, an annual four-day event that offers free dental, vision, and medical care to thousands of patients — regardless of income, insurance, or citizenship. This year’s clinic, which runs from October 22 to October 25, needs over 400 healthcare volunteers and 200 non-medical volunteers each day. If you’re interested in helping out, go here. Make sure to enter UW as your company/organization on the registration page.