Psychologist William Gunn on “A New Hampshire State Medical Society Peer Group Support Program

A New Hampshire physician who experienced the stress and personal trauma of adverse events and litigation felt a strong desire to help others when faced with similar situations. She “went public”, discussed her experience in the local newspaper, and engaged the State Medical Society in creating a statewide peer support program. A steering committee was formed and its members discussed various options with local insurance companies and defense counsel. The result is a program entitled “Walking with Colleagues. The program is purely voluntary and is supported by the state’s insurance companies and defense attorneys. It is advertised at professional meetings and by the State Medical Society.

I have been a family psychologist and family medicine residency educator for almost thirty years. I was approached about my interest in running this program where any physician or advanced practice nurse could get assistance. One part of this program is participating in a group that is protected under the patient/therapist privilege. I would also connect those who did not want a group or needed other kinds of help to that assistance.

The group first met in March of 2014 and then once or twice a month since that time. Individuals from both primary care and specialty settings have attended and shared both their personal reactions as well as their successful coping strategies. I have provided relevant reading material such as personal stories and academic articles to the group for discussion. I have also engaged other professionals such as mindfulness practitioners and defense attorneys to come and provide information for the group to discuss. However, the key ingredient of success, according to those who have attended, is the participant’s ability to talk about their situations with each other. Over the years, I have seen the devastating consequences of adverse events and litigation on the personal lives of those involved as well as on the lives of their close friends and families. It is certainly the case that other health professionals are also affected by these events. I had a close psychologist friend and colleague who committed suicide partly as a result of her ongoing legal situation.

I have talked to numerous professionals who say that they wish they could have had such a resource when they were going through their own difficult legal and emotional process following an adverse event. It continues to be difficult for a variety of reasons such as embarrassment and stigma for an affected person to seek help. ? A program at the Brigham Hospital in Boston succeeds by having peers with prior experience make outreach calls to newly affected colleagues.

It is clear that there is a “code of silence” around those affected by these events and that there is great benefit to all involved in breaking through this barrier. I was honored to be a part of creating a peer support resource in New Hampshire, and I look forward to learning about other successful efforts.

(William Gunn PhD is a licensed psychologist and Director of Peer Support Programs, New Hampshire Medical Society)

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