CPJ Spotlight: Coaching Advances Physician Careers and Improves Patient Outcomes


Coaching Advances Physician Careers and Improves Patient Outcomes
Emotional and Mental Skills Facilitate Peak Performance


Surgeons and ER physicians have to continuously maintain top performance in a fast-paced environment characterized by intense cognitive, physical, and technical demands. Because they are providing high-stakes medical treatment, the consequences of sub-optimal job performance are dire, including injury, disability, or death of the patient, and a potential lawsuit. Understandably, many surgeons and ER physicians struggle with burnout, anxiety, and depression. With the Association of American Medical Colleges predicting a shortage of 100,000 doctors by 2030, it is vital for physicians to cope with these occupational and emotional challenges while keeping their skills sharp. Coaching equips physicians with high-performance strategies, communication techniques, and mental skills needed to maintain elite job performance.

Coaching is Growing in the Medical Field:

  • The American Medical Association advocates for coaching to be a part of medical training, from the student years into residency, and through the rest of a physician’s career. The AMA recently published an article, “These Coaches can set Your Physician Career on a Winning Path,” in which physicians explained how coaching helps in managing relationships, improving patient outcomes, and advancing one’s career.
  • Dr. Victoria Cleak published an article in The BMJ entitled “A Coach can Improve the Performance of any Doctor.” She writes, “A skilled coach can enable a doctor to manage a range of problems, including lack of reflection, burnout, and a lack of resilience. A coach can also help a doctor develop and harness leadership potential.”
  • In “Coaching Physicians to Become Leaders,” Richard Winters of the Harvard Business Review wrote that coaching can help physicians deal with a range of challenges, including navigating organizational politics, balancing the demands of leadership and clinical care, transitioning into leadership roles, and managing time pressure.

How to Coach Physicians:

Physicians are often trained in a culture that emphasizes pushing oneself at the expense of personal well-being. Sleep deprivation, poor diet, and lack of work-life balance are common. Despite the struggles this culture creates, many physicians feel stigmatized when asking for help. Coaching begins by providing physicians with a confidential, non-judgmental, and empathic relationship in which they can openly discuss challenges without fear of losing status.

Coaches collaborate with the physician in the problem-solving process, helping them to develop strategies to maintain flexibility and mental readiness, as their jobs are often unpredictable and require them to work under time pressure. Self-care skills are essential, as it is impossible to maintain peak performance without allowing time to recover and consistently eating, sleeping, and maintaining proper hydration. While this may sound obvious, attending to self-care runs against the competitive physician culture. Coaches can work with physicians on improving their communication skills, as they are often simultaneously managing relationships with the patient, the patient’s family, and hospital staff. Other skills, including deep breathing and mindfulness meditation, offer physicians practical strategies for managing their overall stress level. Biofeedback – a technique that involves teaching an individual to manage their physiological reactions to their environment – can be used to help physicians improve focus, decrease muscle tension, and monitor subtle changes in their body. Many of these techniques are similar to techniques used to coach elite performers in business, sports, and the military, and research has shown that they not only improve health, but physical and occupational performance.

Source: This research paper, “Coaching Surgeons and Emergency Room Physicians,” was published by Barbara J. Walker in a special issue of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice & Research, which focused on coaching elite performers in a wide range of occupational settings – athletics, performing arts, business, military, and medicine.

About The Society of Consulting Psychology: CPJ is a publication of the Society of Consulting Psychology (SCP), a division of the American Psychological Association. SCP represents over 1,000 psychologists who translate psychological science into practical methods for consulting with individuals, groups and organizations to catalyze growth and change.

 Media Contact: Warren Djerf, for SCP; warren@brookcomm.net or (952) 920-3908.

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