A physician coaching movement is afoot. In 2011, before “burnout” was a buzzword, surgeon Atul Gawande published his essay “Personal Best” in The New Yorker. He explored the benefits of coaching in a spectrum of activities, including surgery. “Even Rafael Nadal has a coach,” he wrote. “But doctors don’t. … [W]hy did I find it inconceivable to pay someone to come into my operating room and coach me on my surgical technique?”
Also in 2011, researchers at Mayo Clinic published the results of their first national survey on physician burnout, with their most recent installment published in 2019. While burnout has improved over time, physicians are still at an increased risk compared to workers in other fields. Consequently, we’re now witnessing momentum around physician coaching as a way to alleviate burnout. In fact, a recent study in JAMA Internal Medicine affirms coaching as a powerful tool for physicians seeking greater joy in their work and satisfaction with their lives.
Dr. Devon Gimbel, dermatopathologist and coach, applauds this increasing awareness. “At a time when physician burnout and the pressures on physicians in the workspace are only increasing, coaching has been identified as a valuable tool for addressing the overwhelming stressors physicians face,” she says. “Coaching has long been utilized in other fields but is only now gaining recognition in medicine. This shift is coming at a crucial time.”
What is coaching?
Although overlap exists between them, mentoring and coaching differ. “Each helps an individual identify their strengths and values,” says Dr. Mary Carneval, general surgeon, advanced peer coach and a councilor of the Cleveland Surgical Society. “Mentoring adds the component of experience, and the mentor can offer advice—whereas in coaching, the coach brings the coachee to their own answers.” She sees the coaching relationship as one where a physician “can reconnect with the optimism, motivation, hope and strength” that led them into medicine.
Pediatric psychiatrist and coach Dr. Tracy Asamoah agrees. “An effective coach creates a safe, supportive space where physicians can imagine an idealized self and develop an action plan to move toward their goals.”
Dr. Errin Weisman, family physician and creator of the “Doctor Me First” podcast, is in her fifth year as a physician coach. Over time, she has seen a shift from hearing people ask her what sport she coaches to seeing literature emerge on coaching’s impact on physicians’ quality of life. “No longer do I feel like an outlier doing this woo-woo, touchy-feely thing called coaching, but rather a professional who possesses skills to address my colleagues in a unique way,” she says.
She’s not alone. Dr. Jarret Patton, pediatrician, executive coach and host of the “Licensed to Live” podcast, describes the landscape of physician coaching as “much like medicine itself; it is becoming highly specialized. There is a coach out there for each individual based on their specific needs. Simply take a look around.”
Being someone who provides only adverse outcome and litigation stress management coaching myself, I celebrate the diversity of physician coaches. As Dr. Kristi Angevine, OB-GYN and coach, writes for KevinMD, whatever a physician’s concern may be, “there’s a coach for that.”
The value of coaching
Gimbel calls the tools of coaching something “I wish I had been taught in medical school and residency! Our years in medical education prepare us to manage the most complex of human illnesses and injuries, but so many of us find ourselves struggling with issues never discussed there. From dealing with difficult colleagues to managing stress and anxiety, understanding how to manage our own minds is the single most powerful skill we can use.”
Weisman’s take? “Coaching provides a space for high achievers and deep thinkers to process their thoughts, unpack their emotions and gain awareness and clarity in ways that formal lecturing and education cannot. Rooted in action, it helps with the analysis paralysis common to perfectionist personalities.”
Carneval highlights the benefits to younger physicians since “the daily demands and stressors of learning the healthcare system can overshadow those motivations and talents that brought them to the field in the first place.” Patton, on the other hand, argues, “Coaching is good for a physician of any age. Self-improvement takes work which can’t always be done alone.”
A life in medicine is a complex endeavor. Surprises arise around each bend, and the structures of modern healthcare tend to isolate us from one another. Doesn’t it make sense to seek out a skilled, caring sounding board now and then?
Tips for being an effective physician coach
Licensed coaches provide unique, confidential value to coachees. Nonetheless, just as there are NFL coaches and Little League coaches, we all have the opportunity to develop our skills and support our colleagues through informal relationships. Have a look at these professional physician coaches’ top three tips.
Carneval advises “10-15 minutes of stillness before meeting with a coachee, i.e., no phone calls, charting, emails. This is a time to reflect and bring yourself to the present moment.”
“Learn to listen for long periods of time without speaking,” says Weisman. “As a coach, it is our duty to first be a listener, then a question-asker and very last a speaker.” Gimbel agrees: “The clues to their struggles are always present in the way they tell their story. My job is to create a space where those clues can be expressed.”
3. Know your role
Asamoah reminds us that when we coach, we aren’t there to impose our own notions but to support the other in self-discovery. It is their values and path that matter. For physicians, the pattern of offering advice can be deeply entrenched. Breaking that habit is essential to our coaching success.