From personal experiences to pan-Canadian impact
Posted on Wednesday, February 12, 2020
By Michelle Read
Caroline Gérin-Lajoie admits she found the first year of medical school very challenging.
Very few of her colleagues had a pre-med background in social sciences, she says, which fuelled her insecurity that she wasn’t as well prepared as the others in the program. But encouragement from a professor to lean on peers and mentors for support made all the difference.
“I was anxious about failure,” she admits. “But Dr. Maurice Beaulieu, vice-dean of Francophone Affairs at the time, lent me the much-appreciated and very important support and encouragement that I needed.”
Her experience began to open her eyes to the importance of fostering wellness in the medical profession.
Now a psychiatrist and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry, Dr. Gérin-Lajoie served as the director of the Wellness Program at the Faculty of Medicine from 2013 to 2018, as well as medical director for physician health and wellness at The Ottawa Hospital from 2014 to present. In early 2019, she became vice-president of physician health and wellness at the Canadian Medical Association.
“I’ve had a bird’s eye view of the entire health care system,” she says, “and I can now make a difference in building networks and collaborations at all levels of the medical community.”
Burnout among physicians and residents is higher than in the general population, and wellness research has exploded in the last 20 years. Poor physician health is a quality and safety issue, research shows, with physician burnout linked to an increased risk of errors and decreased patient satisfaction and health outcomes.
It’s also an economic issue.
“Research is revealing the significant economic burden of reduced efficiency, lost productivity and difficulties with retention,” says Dr. Gérin-Lajoie. “In the U.S., the cost of unwell physicians is estimated to be $4.6 billion.”
Such numbers give organizations a strong argument when approaching management on matters of wellness.
“We now recognize that physician health and wellness is a shared responsibility,” says Dr. Gérin-Lajoie. “It involves not only individuals, but medical culture and the organizations we work in.”
When Dr. Gérin-Lajoie became the director of the Wellness Program at the Faculty of Medicine, she began tracking the number of clients, and recording which groups at the Faculty were accessing the program’s services most often. The team noted a significant increase in people reaching out, including increases of 34% in MD students, 74% in residents and 38% in faculty between 2013 and 2018.
Overall, they found the growth to be mirroring a nationwide phenomenon of faculty members in the medical profession seeking wellness help, as well as a similar trend among medical learners.
“I hope the growing numbers signify a growth in trust that we will listen to their deepest concerns, help where able, and direct them to support and resources,” she says. “I also hope it leads to a decrease in stigma surrounding mental health.”
Launched in 1998, the program promotes the health and well-being of faculty members and learners, and was the first ever embedded in a Canadian faculty of medicine. The program is making a notable difference, Dr. Gérin-Lajoie says.
“Our own dean has made wellness a Faculty priority,” she says. “Recognition from leadership is so important.”