“We are really anxious”: how virtual peer networks provide a safe space for physicians during COVID-19

May 4, 2020

Man on a Zoom call with headphones in

“How can I help?”

With her busy travel schedule grounded and her regular patient load moved to virtual care, Dr. Mamta Gautam found herself with a lot of time on her hands at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Then she got a call from a colleague in Nova Scotia.

“She told me, ‘A lot of us are shaking in our boots, though we are firm in our commitment to help with COVID-19. Can you help us?’” recounts Dr. Gautam.

“And that’s when I thought, I have a skill that might be helpful, not necessarily in treating coronavirus on the front lines, but in helping the people that are working there.”

 

Providing a safe space for physicians

Dr. Gautam, a psychiatrist with 30 years of experience in physician health and wellness, sent out a tweet that same night. She was setting up a virtual peer support network: a daily, one-hour videoconference for Canadian physicians wanting to share their feelings and concerns about working during the pandemic.

To ensure a safe and trusting environment, Dr. Gautam had physicians email her to confirm their identity and province of practice. In turn, she sent them a link to join the virtual network. Since that first tweet, Dr. Gautam has provided the link to more than 750 doctors. In the first few weeks, between 30 and 50 physicians called in every day.

tweetable: "What we do is provide a safe place for people to come together and share thoughts and feelings, articulate what’s on their mind without any judgement and know that other people will listen to, if not share, the same feelings and understanding.” – Dr. Mamta Gautam, Ottawa psychiatrist

Normalizing feelings of fear and uncertainty  

Dr. Gautam says she’s seen participants open up about common concerns, such as the shortage of personal protective equipment or fears of contracting coronavirus and passing it on to family members, elderly parents or patients.

Some physicians have expressed worries about being redeployed, or what could happen if they must make ethical decisions about who gets treatment and/or a ventilator.

Dr. Gautam says this sharing is what makes peer support networks valuable; to allow participants to normalize what they’re going through, and through conversation with others, feel reassured their feelings are not unusual.

“The value is in being able to say ‘This is what I’m feeling -- does it make sense? Is it normal? And how can I manage it?’” says Dr. Gautam.

As a trusted expert in physician health, she is able to offer them concrete tips on how to cope and be more resilient: basic self-care strategies, advice on how to stay connected with family and colleagues and how to practice mindfulness and gratitude.

 

Peer support programs for health care workers

Canada-wide:

Ontario only:

 

Helping others establish peer networks

Dr. Gautam admits it’s been a steep learning curve to use virtual care to connect dozens of physicians across Canada, but she’s grateful everyone has been supportive. She says she plans to offer the service as long as people need it.

“My colleagues were worried they wouldn’t have any support,” says Dr. Gautam. “But they do. They come into the network and are very open and willing to help each other.”

Her peer network has already caught the attention of other Canadian medical organizations, who’ve approached her for tips on how to set up similar virtual support systems in their own region.

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This material is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied on as health or personal advice. The opinions stated by the authors are made in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect those of the Canadian Medical Association and its subsidiaries including Joule.  Feel passionate about this topic? Please connect with us at jouleinquiries@cma.ca.

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