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Healing the healer: What you need to know about the Physician Support Line

Publication
Article
Medical Economics JournalMedical Economics June 2023
Volume 100
Issue 6

Physicians need support now more than ever, and there may be no one better positioned to provide that support than our psychiatrist colleagues.

Physicians need support now more than ever, and there may be no one better positioned to provide that support than our psychiatrist colleagues. That was the thought process of Mona Masood, DO, when she envisioned the Physician Support Line, “a national peer-to-peer service provided by volunteer psychiatrists who are unapologetically supporting their physician and medical student colleagues (in) the many intersections of their personal and professional lives.”

Phoning help: ©fizkes - stock.adobe.com

Phoning help: ©fizkes - stock.adobe.com

The Physician Support Line was spurred by the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Masood realized that her colleagues were struggling with emotional trauma caused by the public health emergency. “I found myself discussing with colleagues more than just the virus, but perhaps for the first time how we were coping as physicians and as human beings,” Masood says. “Physicians were really overwhelmed, and I think we finally gave ourselves permission to
speak about our struggle.”

Masood noticed that although physicians were beginning to share their concerns on social media, much of the early discussion was framed in an indirect way. “I would see posts like, ‘Does anybody have a good lawyer to write a will?’ ” she says. “You can read between the lines. They are saying that they’re worried about their mortality … and what that would look like.”

Masood and her colleagues grew alarmed at the tone of these posts. “The Physician Support Line started from a mindset of ‘If not me, then who?’ We knew that we had to address this before it took us over,” she says. Masood called on her psychiatrist colleagues, who responded enthusiastically. “Their response was incredible, and it just speaks to the generosity of spirit and sincerity of our colleagues.”

Physician Support Line

Launched in 2020, the Physician Support Line is available to medical students, residents/fellows, attending physicians and retired physicians. The current hours are weekdays from 8 a.m. to midnight, and the service is free and completely confidential. “We don’t report to anyone, which is a big fear that (we) all have regarding licensing,” Masood says.

The purpose of the Physician Support Line is not a doctor-patient relationship but rather peer-to-peer support. “These volunteers have shared the same experience of physician training and navigating the health care system,” Masood says, noting that physicians can call to talk about any issue, not just those related to practicing medicine.

“We have talked with callers about anything from being burned out to our frustrations with the health care system, including (the) moral injury of who we thought we were going to be as physicians and who we turned out to be and how that feels like some moral reckoning,” she says. “We talk about family and we talk about marriages. We talk about loneliness, sleep, isolation and anything under the sun. It doesn’t have to be a crisis to call; it really is more important that you’re giving yourself permission to center your own story and center your own wellness. And I think that is something that is so needed.”

The line is staffed exclusively by board-certified, licensed psychiatrists who are trained to respond to the needs of physician callers. “The purpose of (the) line is up to the person who calls in,” Masood says. “The person may be saying, ‘I just need to vent this out, because there’s nobody in my life (who) understands what I’m going through.’ ”

Although some calls start as venting, Masood notes that physicians may begin to realize the benefits of therapy after talking with psychiatrist volunteers. “By the end of the call, they may be saying, ‘Wow, this was so eye-opening to me on the benefits of working through something, and I didn’t even know or wasn’t even aware of what I was going through.’ ”

If the physician is interested in exploring further therapy, volunteers provide resources for continuity of care. “We ourselves cannot offer continuity on the line because it is anonymous both ways,” Masood says. “But we can suggest referrals for either therapy or for psychiatric care.” Alternatively, psychiatrists may provide articles or self-help resources.

Pink flags and when
to seek help

Who should call the Physician Support Line? According to Masood, physicians should watch for the pink flags rather than waiting for a red flag or crisis. “I think we put up this big banner like, ‘Oh, it’s a call for help.’ We call it something that feels so drastic, but it’s not,” Masood says. “Often it’s just unburdening yourself and sharing with someone else. ‘Are you seeing what I’m seeing? Or am I overthinking?’ ”

Masood advises physicians to consider themselves the way they could consider any patient. “We can’t treat ourselves. We need someone to be more objective, to take it off (our) shoulders. Let someone else look at it and say, ‘This doesn’t sound so good.’ ”

Masood says that physicians should consider reaching out if they find themselves experiencing anhedonia or social withdrawal. “Reach out when you’re starting to see that things you enjoy are not as enjoyable,” she says.

But Masood also says that physicians should call if they just want to talk or check in. In fact, most of the calls Masood and her colleagues receive are exactly those kinds of calls. “We do get a few calls from (physicians) who are very overwhelmed, but the majority of the calls are, ‘I just want to talk about something with somebody who gets it.’ ” Masood thinks of it as a curbside consultation. “There’s nothing at stake; there’s honestly no risk. It’s either helpful or you are back where you started before you called us.”

But for many physicians, Masood says the Physician Support Line has made a difference. “One of the things … that is so telling is that when physicians call, the initial thing they say is, ‘I’m so sorry for taking your time.’ And this goes to show how unused to and how uncomfortable we are with desiring support.” Masood wants physicians to know that they are worthy of help and not a burden. “When (physicians) say this to me, I explain, ‘This is literally called the Physician Support Line. The person picking up has volunteered to do this. So there is no need for apology.’ ”

Masood says that this common physician response is an example of one of many internalized ideas that physicians have of what it means to be a good physician.
“At the very least, what we can do is to be there as peers, as fellow physicians, reminding you that yes, you have worth. Yes, what you are doing is incredible, and you as a human being deserve to be well.” Masood says that calling the support line “doesn’t have to be one of those giant commitments that we talk ourselves out of. It has to start with seeing ourselves as worthy of support.”

The Physician Support Line is available at PhysicianSupportLine.com or 888-409-0141. Free, confidential and anonymous. No appointment necessary. Call for any issue, not just a crisis. We report to no one. Open Monday to Friday (except federal holidays)
8 a.m. to 12 a.m. EST.

Rebekah Bernard, M.D., is a family physician in Fort Myers, Florida, and the coauthor of “Physician Wellness: The Rock Star Doctor’s Guide.” You can find her interview with Physician Support Line founder Mona Masood, DO, at www.rebekahbernard.com/single-post/physician-support-line.

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