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Easing the hero complex in healthcare work

24 Dec 2017

By: Christine Clarke, MD, QOC Chair; Pam Cortez, Director of Patient Safety and Clinical Support; and Ellen Hampton, Director of Corporate Integrity

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Health care professionals often face the stigma of being superhuman. They’re everyday heroes because they save lives and put the needs of others first. We love saving the world, don’t we?

Until we realize we’re only human. Until we start feeling physically exhausted more often, can’t sleep, or experience emotional swings among other problems that seem to develop for no reason.

But there is a reason — a very real one — that stems from a health care worker experiencing unanticipated harm or trauma from a stressful event or ongoing, continuous stressors. People who experience these stressors have a name: “second victims.” Physical and mental health suffer as a result – and no one is immune.

Hope is on the way

Salem Health will pilot a new support team in early 2018. It’s called Peer Support Team, a critically needed, peer-based support network for physicians, nurses and other clinicians who feel traumatized or on the verge of “brownout” (exhaustion and stress just before the more damaging burnout phase).

Planning began last year after medical staff leaders Ralph Yates, MD and Andrew Furman, MD, learned from surveys that 50 percent of our medical staff suffer brownout at some point in their careers. Addressing this became a key part of this year’s medical staff A3, and thus, the work began. Creating a peer support program is a major goal in the current A3.

Work is based on University of Missouri Health Care’s Peer Support Team curriculum, a free, confidential program available 24/7. The support group will reach out to those who are involved in a serious event and those in high-stress units, like the ER and surgery, but will be available to anyone who wants to talk – which is often the first step in a caregiver’s healing process.

We want to be there, day or night, to ask, “How are you feeling?” after high-stress events and give our caregivers resources to care for themselves. The intent is not to discuss specific details or cases or occurrences but to discuss the impact it has created.

Who’s involved?

Ellen Hampton and Pam Cortez are co-captains. Physician champions are Joe Stalfire, MD; Jennifer Williams, MD; and Andy Furman, MD/Vice President Medical Affairs. Staff include Ken Morse, Spiritual Care Supervisor; Amanda Griffith, CVCU ANM; Cheeri Barnhart, CVCU Nurse Manager; Melissa Shortt, Clinical Nurse Instructor; Hong Lee, Medical Ethicist; Jon Deming, Peer Review/Clinical Support Manager; Sarah Horn, Chief Nursing Officer; Michelle Hirschkorn, Clinical Nurse Specialist; and Kristy McIntosh, Accreditation and Patient Safety manager.

The topic also emerged through the Committee for Professionalism, which is part of our Peer Review work. The committee wanted to help provide positive support to those in stress. Our CVCU has a similar program for nurses, so leadership from that unit is on the team to share wisdom on what works. 

Next Steps: Finding peer mentors

The team is developing peer mentor training in the next four months and is on the verge of selecting peer mentors: one team of mentors for providers and another for hospital staff. Team members hope to pilot the process later this winter and launch it completely in April. The team welcomes any feedback on anything you see as essential components.

Sidebar: Are you a second victim?

Health care workers have increased risk of chronic stress which can result in health problems — not just because you might be exposed to more traumatic events, but because of the demanding nature of health care in general. You could be a second victim if you:

  • Feel personally responsible for a stressful event
  • Feel as though you’ve failed the patient
  • Second-guess your clinical skills and knowledge
  • Feel emotional numbness or an absence of response
  • Don’t want to discuss the case for fear of breaking confidentiality requirements
  • Become less tolerant of normal interactions that occur inside or outside work

If you experience any of these symptoms, we encourage you to seek help. Prior to the team launch, you can reach out to Employee Assistance Programs or find a trusted colleague and tell them how you are feeling.