University of Ottawa physician becomes first Canadian winner of the AFMC Wellness Award

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The University of Ottawa's Dr. Mamta Gautam is the first awardee of the AFMC Wellness Award, a new national honor that recognizes an individual in Canada who has shown dedication to the promotion and advancement of the wellness of physicians, medical students, and others.

"I am truly humbled and honored. Promoting physician wellbeing is an area that I have been passionate about for over 30 years. To have the AFMC create an award to recognize contributions in this area lends further credibility to the importance of this topic," says Dr. Gautam, a psychiatrist at the uOttawa Faculty of Medicine who has developed an international reputation as a pioneer and champion in the area of physician health.

She's hopeful that the new recognition from the Association of Faculties Medicine of Canada (AFMC) north_east will help lead to the creation of a healthier medical culture, and better support trainees as they advance in their careers.

A focus on physician health couldn't come at a more important time. Rates of burnout and stress among physicians – already high before the COVID-19 pandemic – have been greatly exacerbated during the world-transforming phenomenon.

The immense pressure facing many physicians can manifest in everything from substance abuse and increased treatment errors to anxiety and suicidal ideation. Dr. Gautam says she has not seen such a "sustained challenge" before in the field.

Through this pandemic, physicians have been dealing with uncertainty in a time of crisis and great need. They have dealt with increasing patient demands at a time of staff shortages, numerous losses with associated grief, compassion fatigue in which we become drained by absorbing the trauma of others and are unable to refuel and reenergize, and moral distress as we manage the challenge of simultaneously knowing what care our patients need but are unable to provide it due to system constraints that are beyond our control."

Dr. Mamta Gautam, University of Ottawa

"Physicians have been working flat out for the past three years, stepping up tirelessly, but it is taking a toll. We are stretched too thin, working in a healthcare system that lacks the appropriate infrastructure, resources, and investment to ensure our well-being."

Physician "burnout" is a distinct work-related syndrome, characterized by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization or feelings of detachment and cynicism toward people and work, and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment. It was already increasing prior to the pandemic with burnout rates of 40-50% among physicians. The pandemic has nearly doubled these rates.

Burnout doesn't just impact an individual and their family, it will also have an impact on patients since it affects a physician's ability to deliver care.

Dr. Gautam says it's been correlated with an increased risk of medical errors and serious safety events, reduced patient satisfaction, and worse patient outcomes, including health care associated infections, readmission to hospital, and increased mortality. Additionally, burnout leads to a negative economic impact due to decreased efficiency of health care delivery, reduced clinical hours, and costs associated with clinician turnover, she says.

Dr. Gautam couldn't be a more deserving expert to win this new award from the AFMC, which recognizes distinguished individuals in academic medicine. She's the founding director of the uOttawa Faculty of Medicine Wellness Program, the first physician wellness program at any academic center in the world. It served as the template for the Canadian Medical Association's Centre for Physician Health and Wellbeing, where she served as the expert physician advisor.

Over 30 years, she's been a widely published trailblazer in the field and is a sought-after speaker on topics related to physician health and leadership.

Currently, she serves as the Chair of the OMA Burnout Task Force, and is an invited member on the National Consortium for Indigenous Medical Education (NCIME) Working Group on Joy & Wellness. She has served as the wellness advisor for the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada.

She's partnered with international colleagues to create impactful programs to enhance physician wellbeing. Among other things, she's collaborated with colleagues in Australia to create programs to train physicians to treat colleagues, assisted in creating a burnout prevention program in Norway, and consults widely throughout Canada and the U.S. to design and develop hospital wellness programs.

Looking ahead, what does Dr. Gautam believe it will take for health care systems to prioritize physician health?

"Achieving solutions at a system level will require the development of partnerships and coordination among all of the key stakeholders, including government, medical regulatory bodies, medical schools and residency training programs, health care organizations, leadership, as well as the physicians, residents, and medical students themselves," she says.

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