Transformational learning for doctors, so much more than a training program

Profound experience happens in Our Signature Immersion Doctor Care Program groups that changes the way doctors practice medicine and personally experience their work. I am totally humbled by the trust placed in my cofacilitator Dr Elisabeth Wearne (Liz) and me, by the experience of witnessing our doctor participants’ deep learning.

When Liz and I first talked about this idea of a process that included group work and individual work over time, we had no idea who would come or if it would help. We knew that the statistics for doctor burnout, suicide, drug and alcohol misuse, anxiety and depression were unacceptable. We decided to try and do something.

Doctors are the lynchpin of the health system, without their commitment to training, suspending their life, moving constantly, competing for limited training positions, awful hours, high risks and so many unseen acts of generosity taxing their time and energy, we would all be in strife. Just imagine for 30 seconds if all our primary care doctors (GPs) went on strike for 24 hours. What if our hospital doctors walked off the job for half a day? None of us can afford for our health system to grind to a halt.

Unlike psychologists, doctors are not required to have supervision or debriefing. Most doctors can tell you multiple stories of trauma and tragedy, usually they walk away from these situations into the next room and are required to meet the next patient as if nothing has happened. Then they go home to their families and act like nothing happened. When a doctor wants to work part-time all sorts of pressure and ploy is applied, patients tell them how long they had to wait to see them, colleagues notice how much they have to work to take up the slack and administrators let them know how many gaps there are in the roster. Seriously!! Doctors are PEOPLE.

Sure you can argue that doctors are highly intelligent and knew what they were signing up for. Did they? How can a 17 or 18 year old possibly understand what they are signing up for? One of my first learnings working with doctors was how many of them entered medical school to appease someone else, parents or teachers. They were clever, everyone expected it of them. Medicine or law, anything else would have been second best. As Caroline Elton notes in her book Also Human, it seems harder to get out of medicine than it is to get into medicine, once on this track, it’s incredibly difficult emotionally, psychologically and practically to get off.

Escaping is often prescribed for burnout. Take a holiday, work part time, change where you work.  However, escaping for a while doesn’t seem to heal many of the people who are experiencing burnout. Developing the skills of communication, emotional intelligence and emotional regulation may be more effective, as Trezeciak and Mazzarelli suggest in their book Compassionomics? Where and how would you learn these skills if you were a doctor?

Recent research has shown us that compassion might be a protective factor for burnout.2 This means leaning in to emotion, our own and others’. The problem is, most doctors think they are compassionate, but the research says doctors are not very good at assessing their own compassion or empathy. The problem is that those around them know they do not demonstrate compassion and this limits the doctor’s capacity to offer true optimal care. Patients especially, know that they are not being cared for the way they want to be cared for. If a patient feels uncared for, their health outcomes are not as good as they could be. And the doctor is more at risk of burnout, making errors, having conflict with their colleagues and diminishing patient safety.

Doctors join our Immersion program in order to learn and develop their ‘soft’ skills and to take better care of themselves. While they are sometimes anxious about what they will learn, they are ready to open themselves to change. They are hopeful of real personal development. They are not coming to a training program or an update. They are entering into a process of transformation.

These doctors are learning about their own emotions and how to better regulate them. They are also learning skills to help them better respond to other people’s emotions. Technology and technical skill is not enough for these doctors, they are seeking to deliver the best possible care they can and to have long fulfilling careers in medicine. They understand that meaning, human connection and relationship are central to the business of medicine. Human connection is at the core of a medicine, it is a people business.

Our Signature Immersion Doctor Care Program is not therapy. This is serious skill development with the aim of taking better care of doctors so they can be well and then can take better care of everyone else. One of our doctor participants wrote to us recently, here is a small part of the message:

“I am sitting here today wanting to express gratitude. For where I am emotionally and spiritually, and the impact it’s had on my life. But more importantly to those people who have helped me arrive here…. especially to the immersion program for how this stuff has impacted my work.

Mindfulness, and being more in touch with the “blue sky”, outside of the constant thinking difficult thoughts, has been instrumental in that. “

The doctor describes some meaningful and practical actions they are taking in life and work, for privacy we will not share the specifics here. The doctor finishes saying…

“I feel ready and strong. I feel grateful for the support to arrive at this point. I’ll let you know how it goes…..

Thanks everyone. Thanks especially Liz and Sharee.” 

What a privilege this work is. May 2020 bring many blessings to all of our doctors. Thank you.


Also Human, Caroline Elton (2018)

Compassionomics, Stephen Trzeciak and Anthony Mazzarelli (2019)

Sharee Johnson is the Founder of Coaching for Doctors, she works as an executive coach, psychologist and meditation teacher. She is committed to helping doctors change the culture of medicine to care for everyone properly, including doctors.


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This post was written by Sharee Johnson