How Geisinger's chief wellness officer is doing 'more than just bringing a dog to the floor'

Susan Parisi, MD, serves as the inaugural chief wellness officer for Danville, Pa.-based Geisinger.

Dr. Parisi's role centers around some of the most pressing issues in healthcare, such as the workers' mental health and combating the rising levels of burnout among providers and other staff. 

Dr. Parisi joined Becker's to discuss burnout, career satisfaction and how health systems can make a difference in their physicians' mental health and wellness.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Question: How can health systems keep physicians satisfied in their roles amid rising levels of career dissatisfaction and burnout?

Dr. Susan Parisi: We know that our physicians are burning out. We know that the last few years have accelerated the pace of burnout, and we've focused for so many years on the exit interview and not why people stay in their roles. 

I think it's not just unique to any particular health system; the stresses and strains and burnout and provider dissatisfaction — it's really national and international.

One of the things is really having our physicians feel valued, and how we feel valued varies from person to person. So as leaders, I often think that we need to know our physicians and how they want to be acknowledged and recognized. For some people that might be increased compensation, but for others it could be as simple as showing appreciation by thanking them for staying with the organization, for showing up every day and for the good work they do for patients. 

The important thing is helping our practitioners to feel valued so they know that we really care about them and want them to stay. Another thing I hear often is that they want to be heard. Often they feel that their voices get lost in everything else that's going on in healthcare right now. And they really want to be heard — not just heard, but acknowledged.

Acknowledged means that you respond to what you're hearing, and it might be as simple as, "I hear you. I hear that's a problem for you. I can't fix that problem right now. But you've also given me two or three other problems, and I can fix this one or that one." So I'm really looking for that opportunity and acknowledging that "Yes, there's some things I can fix for you. There's some things I can't do, but I'm working on whatever I can." 

As leaders, the other thing that we hear often is really that loss of connection. I don't think that's unique to healthcare; I think the changing workforce has affected many aspects of life. We spend so much time at work. There are times when I've talked to somebody a number of times and bumped into them in the hallway and never knew who they were. Establishing those connections and making them more supportive is important.

Q: What else has Geisinger done to put itself closer to that goal of establishing feelings of value and acknowledgement among physicians? 

SP: One of the things that comes to mind is what we call our clinicians table. We invite our physicians, advanced practice providers, residents or fellows and our medical students to come together for an hour to two hours to sit down for a little while — to have lunch and talk to each other. That's been very successful, and we've seen attendance continue to rise. It's really nice to see the older physicians with the medical students and the residents just all sitting down and talking to each other. 

The other thing we do is we do intentional rounding where we actually go out to the floors. We do it as a check-in to see how individuals are doing, and it's an opportunity to get face time with people. We meet them where they are and say, "How are you doing? Do you need anything? Is there anything we can do for you?" It's helped us to identify places where people may be struggling to bring questions or concerns to leaders.

The other thing that we've done is building a peer support program. Ours is called M-PATH, which stands for Meeting Peers at the Heart, and its purpose is to really trying to change that culture and be a little more proactive, training as many individuals in many different roles in as many different departments to really support each other — not just in those moments that are difficult, but every day.

We also have our program called Paws to Reflect; that pairs staff with our pet therapy dogs. We use that as an opening, bringing the dogs and their handlers to the floor with a peer supporter and conduct rounds. That moment when individuals come and they're more vulnerable with the dog, then the peers will ask, "How are you doing?" So it's just a really nice moment, and it's a great way to reach individuals. Obviously, it's more than just bringing a dog to the floor because it's connecting with them.

We also have what we call a personnel crisis response team — and that's not made of just our well-being team, it's a group from all different disciplines, like our chaplains and our behavioral health team and our emergency management team — designed to bring together those individuals to provide support for events that impact an entire unit or units to help support them and to get them back on track and to utilize available resources to the best of our abilities.

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