As physicians and healthcare teams around the world find themselves facing the unprecedented challenge of COVID-19, the topic of how we care for ourselves and our colleagues has never been more important. The influx of patients in need of emergency services as a result of the pandemic is taxing the entire healthcare system and its workers. Medical professionals who may have been experiencing feelings of burnout prior to the pandemic are now particularly vulnerable. The current crisis illustrates the benefits of developing a culture of wellness to support staff as a core practice philosophy.
Robert J. Min, MD, MBA, FACR, chair of radiology at Weill Cornell Medicine and president of the Weill Cornell Physician Organization, spoke with the Bulletin to discuss some of the innovative wellness strategies and successes he has led over the years — and how the changing environment brought about by the current pandemic goes to the heart of staff well-being.
What advice do you have for radiology groups in the early stages of developing a wellness program?
Practices should realize that it will take time to see results from wellness efforts. In no way do you start these things and suddenly everyone is doing great and there is no burnout. If you look at places where there has been success, you would be surprised at how slowly improvements to well-being came along.
What is a good starting point for building a culture of wellness?
I’ve been really involved with our residents throughout the years. I meet with them as a group for two hours every month and we always spend some time on well-being. We let them know we are committed to creating an environment that enables faculty, staff and trainees to do what they love — and to free them up from things that might be barriers to that. You want them to know they are valued, and that they are offering value. As much as we want them to love what they do, we have adopted the philosophy that loving who they do it with is just as important.
What adjustments have you made since the coronavirus outbreak?
We are fortunate to have valuable resources available to our faculty, staff, and trainees here at Weill Cornell, including members of the department of psychiatry who act as liaisons to assist with stress management. They have conducted Zoom sessions that serve as a forum to openly discuss concerns and feelings about the pandemic — and to share what may be effective coping strategies.
Can a sense of fairness and feeling valued contribute to this type of open exchange?
COVID-19 has been extremely challenging, particularly for those of us in New York City at the epicenter of the crisis. Naturally, everyone is dealing with various levels of anxiety, stress, and fatigue. We have relied heavily on our core principles of transparency, fairness, and open communication. I have twice weekly Zoom meetings with all faculty and trainees. I do my best to let everyone know the current state of things, answer any questions or concerns as best I can, and try to recognize the many people who have shined in the midst of such darkness.
What are some things that promote a sense of value and fairness within your group?
I have always been guided by a few general principles, including parity and transparency, even with things like salary. We don’t have incentives or bonuses based on volume or how many relative value units an individual generates. I understand that money does matter, but I don’t want it to create perverse incentives. Everyone gets treated equally — we don’t have differences based upon subspecialty, gender, etc. We’ve really been a group that has excelled in terms of inclusion and gender diversity.
How does the patient experience align with your wellness philosophy?
Patient care must be an overriding principle. We encourage our radiologists to interact directly with patients — which is so important to their own feelings of value. It goes to the heart of feeling good about yourself. When your mission is to churn out as many cases as possible, that is probably not something you’re going to feel good about. Everyone understands the value of providing the best experience for our patients. Our department may not be the place where you’ll make the most money, but it is a place where you will be allowed to excel, you will be supported, and you will enjoy the people you sit next to. We recruit people who value those things above dollars.
What would you say about the stigma associated with burnout?
Open communication is so important. You have to create an environment in which people don’t feel embarrassed to bring up the fact that they need help or are feeling overwhelmed. Everyone is going to struggle at some point. There are studies showing that healthcare providers, particularly physicians, who spend 20% of their work time doing something that they really love have significantly lower rates of burnout. That differs for everyone. Some people love doing research, others education, and others may be passionate about global healthcare, as examples. I tell people to be thoughtful in figuring out what would make them the happiest. I make sure they know that I will do my best to enable them to pursue it. This concept is more than offering encouragement. You need to formalize this kind of thinking and continually provide support.
What is the team you helped build demonstrating now during the crisis?
I participated in this interview before COVID-19 and we discussed the investment that we have made over many years in creating a positive, supportive, caring environment, and recruiting the best people that valued these things. We could never have anticipated the magnitude of this global crisis, but staying unified and keeping our morale up are proving to be the most important factors in surviving this. I believe that, and I believe we will emerge even stronger as a team.