Aug 24, 2022
The Office of Personalized Health and Well-Being: Mental Health in the World of Medicine
Practicing medicine is undoubtedly a selfless act. Physicians spend hours looking after the well-being of others but often neglect their own.
To address this area of need and support mental and physical well-being of medical students on campus, the Augusta University/University of Georgia Medical Partnership began the Office of Personalized Health and Well-being in January of 2020.
Dr. Cathy Snapp, the Medical Partnership’s campus director of behavioral health, wanted to start the office to have a space that focused on improving mental and physical health.
“We really wanted to have a designed part of our campus that is dedicated to the well-being of our students, faculty, staff, and residents,” said Snapp.
The office’s goals are to improve the personal health and resiliency of next-generation physicians, to train students and residents how to care for patients while increasing responsibility for their own health, and to research effective training models of health and well-being to export to other academic medical centers in the state.
“In the past decade there has been a focus on mental well-being of medical students and physicians in general because of the overwhelming prevalence of depression, anxiety, and other mental challenges that the medical career path is known for. A lot of efforts now are focusing on students and residents to really put more of a focus on their own mental well-being,” said Casey Bassett, assistant director of behavioral health.
“This is our love and our passion,” said Snapp.
A big goal of the office has been to ingrain the importance of well-being before the students fully enter the frantic career for medicine.
One in three medical students report symptoms of depression, and one in nine experiences suicidal ideation, so it is critical to stress the importance of mental health early on.
“Patient care begins with physician well-being,” said Snapp.
“And the initial step of physician well-being is medical student well-being,” added Bassett, “so we are trying to encompass that from the very beginning of their training as future physicians.”
Chandler Johnson, a third-year student at the Medical Partnership, said it is easy to let mental health fall to the side while in medical school. Johnson knew she would be stressed, but likened medical school to a “fire hose of information.”
“I have found that it is easier to neglect mental health in medical school,” said Johnson. “Obligations, meetings, deadlines, and tests never seem to ease up for involved medical students. It is easy to be distracted by these things and spend less attention on yourself than you may need at that certain time.”
“Those stressors begin the first week of medical school and tend to snowball,” said Snapp.
“They have such a limited amount of time and they’re given so much new information in any given week that something has to give,” said Bassett. “The tendency is for their own personal habits to take a back seat. Students who may use exercise to help handle stress, that’s the first thing that goes because they think they don’t have enough hours in the day to do that anymore because they have to be so dedicated to studying.”
Snapp and Bassett have worked on organizing events and workshops for students, faculty, and staff such as applied nutrition cooking classes, painting vases for patients in hospice, yoga, and emotional regulation retreats.
“We’ve worked on mindfulness and focusing and shifting the mindset from something that is not helpful, not constructive, to something more positive and being able to apply that in the moment. Simple practices,” said Bassett.
“Medical education is focused on disease, but the tide is changing in that we are now seeing the need for health promotion for our physicians,” said Snapp.
“In the past, medical education has not included these things, it was more a rite of passage and students just dealing with stressors on their own and figure out how to handle it all,” said Bassett. “Now institutions are saying, no, this is our responsibility. Medical education doesn’t have to be that way.”
Snapp and Bassett said the tendency to neglect well-being during residency and as a physician is “turbocharged.”
The Council of Emergency Medicine Residency Directors estimates that up to 400 physicians take their own lives per year. The risk for suicide is 2.27 times greater among women and 1.41 times higher among men versus the general population.
National Physician Suicide Awareness Day is recognized annually on September 17 to bring awareness to the issue.
Snapp said it’s impossible to have it all, but the goal is to start small.
“It’s impossible to have your sleep, nutrition, and exercise in balance during residency, but what you can do it just one thing. Focus on one thing a day for your emotional well-being and your physical well-being. Micro goals and micro moments can have a profound impact.”
Snapp said they soon will start training with the 110 residents at both St. Mary’s and Piedmont Athens Regional to help them integrate micro goals into their day—that could be getting more sleep or simply drinking more water during the day.
“The concept of stress and burnout is so profound and the mental health issues are so significant, but what is encouraging are these micro changes. It sounds so simple, but I cannot underscore how transformative they are,” said Snapp.
For Johnson, she likes to write out her day in a planner to see where she can squeeze in something for herself.
“For me, I thrive on structure. Having things written down eliminates some of the guess work out of my day and allows me to efficiently complete tasks. Having structure allows me to know exactly when I can add things to my schedule that I look forward to, such as a daily workout, time to make a healthy meal, or hang out with my friends. Having things to look forward to and taking the time to focus on my mental and physical health makes medical school sustainable,” said Johnson.
Snapp and Bassett said as a physician takes care of their own mental and physical well-being, they are better able to help their patients.
“Physicians really have to pay attention to their own health, so they are able to better care for their patients,” said Bassett. “Well-being even ties into medical error and patient satisfaction with their physician. You have to fill your own cup before you fill others.”
Johnson echoed those thoughts and said medical school was the perfect time to get in touch with your mental health before fully entering the career.
“Now is the time to get to know ourselves and our needs better and develop healthy coping mechanisms that we can sustain throughout our careers. For me, my goal is to be at my best so I can show up for my patients in the future,” said Johnson.
The office is currently launching well-being teams, adding upon peer coaching, adding more wellness events, and bringing in faculty champions
“One of the things I love about our office is being able to focus on well-being and promote these strategies in the curriculum,” said Snapp. “It’s so great that we have a dean who really advocates for health and well-being. She’s the reason we have this office, and she’s really dedicated resources for us. That support has been tremendously helpful. It’s fun to be part of an organization with so much support for what we are doing. It’s exciting to do that kind of work.”
Johnson said she is grateful for the work of the Office of Personalized Health and Well-being and for the Medical Partnership’s commitment to focus on the mental health of its students.
“I have found that stress is not something I have had to approach alone,” said Johnson, “and it is important to understand that you matter too!”