• Guest Editorial

    Champion a Well-being Initiative That Works

    Peer-to-peer Program Gives Students Skills to Thrive

    Nov. 17, 2022, 1:20 p.m. Joanna Bernatowicz — My passion for social justice and population health drew me toward family medicine early. Before starting medical school, I worked as a scribe at a family medicine practice to determine whether the specialty measured up to what I had envisioned. My gap year, however, coincided with the pandemic.

    headshot of Joanna Bernatowicz

    The mental strain of isolation, changes in employment, illness and death took its toll on both the patients and clinicians in the clinic. After one particularly long afternoon of seeing several patients for their depression, anxiety and suicidality, I remember the weary doctor I scribed for turning to me and trying to reassure me: “Family medicine isn’t always this taxing.”

    I actually felt even more inspired by the dedication and empathy that doctor demonstrated to all his patients. Nevertheless, I grew increasingly concerned for primary care physicians facing burnout.

    My gap year confirmed my desire to pursue family medicine but created real concerns about the longevity of such a career. As I began medical school, this fear expanded beyond my specialty of choice. When I returned home for my physical before beginning medical school, the doctor seeing me told me her best advice was, “Don’t kill yourself.”

    I laughed nervously, to which she responded, “I’m not joking. No amount of success in school or a profession is worth your life.”

    These experiences left me with a lurching feeling.

    What should I do? Switch to an easier path before it’s too late?

    Make contingency plans for the burnout that seems inevitable?

    Plow through and hope the system changes by the time I’m ready to begin practice?

    Pursuing a position in the AAFP’s first cohort of Family Medicine Interest Group Well-being Champions was my answer. I wanted to cultivate the practices and knowledge that would allow me to pursue the career of my dreams without worry that I would have to sacrifice myself in the process. Equally important, I wanted to be involved in the cultural shift to inspire fellow students, residents and practicing physicians to do the same for themselves and their institutions.

    Championing wellness, admittedly, can seem overdone and even insincere. For instance, I’ve had academic advisers remind me that I should be practicing wellness for my residency applications because program directors are looking for such things these days. It’s incredibly frustrating to be told by someone outside of the medical field that I should maintain well-being for an application.

    Dr. Glaucomflecken, the popular alter ego of ophthalmologist Will Flanary, M.D., pointed out the irony of asking health care workers to be more resilient without making needed changes to our workload or culture. In his TikTok video, a burned out physician becomes paralyzed, “Because it takes literally every ounce of energy you have left just to keep breathing.” The already struggling doctor is then inundated with hours of well-being seminars in addition to his heavy workload.

    There are three key reasons the FMIG Well-being Champion program works so well, and students interested in applying to the program or attending its presentations should consider these before attending yet another wellness seminar. (And those in medical school leadership should consider them before assigning such seminars.)

    • Peer-to-peer design — The peer-to-peer design of the Well-being Champions program (an initiative funded by the Health Resources and Services Administration) and the sincere promotion of evidence-based strategies distinguish this well-being seminar series from others that I’ve experienced. Each presentation has been co-created by medical students from five different medical colleges under the mentorship of Catherine Florio Pipas, M.D., M.P.H., an award-winning well-being advocate, teacher and clinician at Dartmouth Medical College. Further, the content is not passively learned; actionable strategies are taught and shared.
    • Skill building and networking — Beyond inspiring the pursuit of wellness and providing strategies to achieve a state of well-being for me and others in medical school and health care, being involved as a Well-being Champion has taught me leadership and given me the opportunity to attend conferences I wouldn’t have been able to attend otherwise. As I mentioned, Well-being Champions are directly involved in the creation of the content provided in the presentations. Collaborating with student leaders in family medicine across the nation has taught me organizational skills, helped me navigate team dynamics, and provided training in teaching methodology and the generation of shared values.
    • Tangible and accessible benefits — Having the AAFP fully finance my lodging, travel and registration fees to attend conferences such as the AAFP National Conference of Family Medicine Residents and Medical Students or AAFP Physician Health and Well-being Conference is an incredible perk of the program. Attending national meetings inspired me, allowed me to network with others in the field of family medicine and enabled me to work together in person with the other Well-being Champions.

    It’s my hope that the sessions we’ve created can help medical students meaningfully improve their well-being and better care for themselves. For those interested in continuing this mission by becoming Well-being Champions, I can’t recommend the opportunity highly enough. Whether you want to cultivate your own skills in keeping yourself well, help lead the change in your schools and institutions to create cultures of wellness, or benefit from the increased exposure to the field of family medicine at conferences, this is the program for you.

    Check out the schedule and requirements and apply by Dec. 31.

    Joanna Bernatowicz is a second-year medical student at Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine in Scranton, Pa.