In a specialty where physicians are seeing patients at their sickest during a small window of time to establish trust and create a clear diagnosis, important fundamentals like respectful communication, team member appreciation, and personal well-being can easily take a backseat to the pressures of the frontline.
The research tells us that connection to patients and team collaboration are key drivers to countering the personal impact of burnout. This is why we’re proud to introduce one of the national thought leaders in emergency medicine physician coaching, Dr. Stefanie Simmons, who brings her expertise to the Clinician Experience Project to lead ED physicians through patient connection and team support skills.
Read on to get to know Dr. Simmons and learn about her vision to help clinicians succeed through the right support.
Q: Let’s kick things off by having you share with our community what your current role is and in what ways you actively champion physician engagement and leadership development.
I’m an emergency medicine physician living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and my current role is as the Vice President for Patient and Clinician Engagement for Envision Physician Services.
Starting in residency, I have had research and education interests in culture of safety and team leadership and in how physicians in particular, but also clinicians at large, learn about and develop in those areas.
One of my first leadership roles was at my primary hospital practice. I was the quality keystone leader for culture of safety and that really cemented for me the importance of team communication and team leadership, both in providing an excellent patient experience with regards to communication and connection, but also leading the team in creating a work environment where there’s psychological safety to disclose errors or flaws in processes to really make our healthcare system a safer, higher quality system—one that’s better for both our patients and the clinicians working in the environment.
At that hospital I then became the physician champion for patient experience and co-chaired the Patient Experience Multidisciplinary Committee. At the same time, working for the emergency physician medical group, I was the director for patient and clinician experience, which allowed me to see both hospital and physician group viewpoints.
I started a peer coaching program that incorporated observation and a hybrid of coaching and feedback for bedside skills, as well as an intensive coaching program for clinicians who were struggling with team and patient communication. That was really aimed at retaining clinicians and helping them through time in their career where they were struggling. That role expanded to include the Midwest region and now nationally in a multi-specialty group.
My current focus is really on helping clinicians develop team leadership and communication and connection skills, supporting the implementation of those skills through positive work environments, and working on implementing processes and support systems to enhance professional well-being among clinicians who work for Envision Physician Services.
Q: In light of the number of years you’ve spent in patient experience leadership roles, tell us what experiences have shaped you the most as a clinician coach and mentor.
I was recently talking to somebody about how I don’t want anyone to have to go through a time of questioning or doubt without somebody there to support them or bounce ideas off of, and his answer was, “Why? Why don’t you want that?” And this response kind of took me aback, because to me, it seems like a goal in and of itself that doesn’t need a why.
One of the experiences that really shaped my interest in this is a very difficult time that I went through my own career. At the end of residency, I was struggling with whether I even wanted to continue in medicine after the birth of my second child and postpartum depression, as well as struggling with the decision between pursuing a primary research, an academic career and a tenure track position, or a community medicine and administrative career. It was a period of intense questioning and part of that questioning was sorting out what medical practice means in the difficult parts of those environments.
Additionally during that time, two of my close colleagues in residency were dealing with their own struggles. One of whom had developed a significant chronic medical challenge as a result of viral exposure during residency and another whose spouse had severe medical issues with the birth of their first child which required that he have some additional support both by peers and our training program.
I saw how important it was for those clinicians—both of whom were really excellent clinicians—to have that peer and administrative support in order to be successful. For all of us, there were places where it succeeded and where it failed. I wanted our profession to do a better job for everyone going through a challenging time. Those experiences are what really have shaped my desire to work in this area.
Q: Share with us what types of experiences, collaborative efforts, and unique challenges have been particularly influential for you as a physician who helps caregivers rediscover the joy in their work.
There is a personal journey that people have to go on. The work doesn’t get any easier. It doesn’t get less complex. It doesn’t get less difficult. But it can be less frustrating or less painful depending on your mindset.
There are systems that are broken and not working very well. There are frustrations about the way patients come in for care. There are parts that can be improved, and I think there’s an emotional stance toward those problems of “I’m going to work on improving these. I’m going to do my best within the system and I’m going to do my best to make sure it works as well as possible.”
It can feel like you are in a pit that does not have a way out when you’re in the middle of feeling that trap, of being dissatisfied with your career and with the people you’re working with and for and the patients that you’re caring for. But there is a way out of that to the pit for every person and it’s a pretty intense personal journey for most people.
You can’t pull someone out yourself, you can help them know they’re not alone, that other people have gone through it, and that they don’t have to be ashamed to be feeling that way. It certainly can feel like drowning when you’re in the middle of shift and you’re swamped and you just want there to be an easy way out or up.
It can be renewing to know that there are people going through something similar, that there are clinicians who have found joy in their practice after going through that time, and that it’s both a personal and professional journey where these burdens can be shared.
Q: In our Patient Experience Emergency Medicine curriculum, you cover topics such as bedside communication, self-care, team support, and more.
What practices do you believe emergency medicine physicians will find helpful as they learn, try, and share what’s inside these coaching skills?
I struggled a little bit when I was developing these tips with the tension between very operational tips like sitting down, introducing yourself, the appropriate use of humor, or having a trick so that people remember your name, versus the strategy of building in self-care, building relationships, and building empathy for your patient population.
That second pathway is the more complex and challenging, but I think it’s the work that actually needs to be done to make a substantial difference for the individual’s experience of care, because you can act out the skills of a polite encounter without doing the difficult work of self-care, so these tips are really focused on that second path of realizing that there is space in a shift for investing in wellbeing.
You can find the time because the time can sometimes be 20 seconds, and you have to do some of that renewal work even during your shift, but definitely afterwards in order to be able to continue on this path. What’s funny is that the punk rock side of me says it’s actually an act of rebellion to take 20 seconds for yourself when you’re trapped in the middle of a shift. It’s a recognition of the essential nature of what you’re doing and the part that healthcare plays in it and actually acting on that is a statement about the importance of your well-being.
If you’re operating from a place of judgment or dismissiveness of your patient, that is eventually going to corrupt your dedication to the work. So the journey that people have to go on, it’s quite hard. It’s about understanding why you’re doing what you’re doing and reconnecting to that.
That being said, the emergency medicine tips are both pragmatic and actionable, but they’re not simple, and they’re really designed to lead people on a more complex journey.
People also need to be able to put their money where their mouth is in terms of not just complaining about the system, but doing what they need to to be a better actor in it. And then also hold the system accountable for improvement. It can’t only be about our own personal wellness and resilience; it must also be about holding the system accountable for improvement.
Q: In one phrase or word, what would you say helps you thrive most as a clinician?
In the last couple months, I’ve actually fully transitioned from a clinical to administrative role. That was a long-considered transition for me, but the motivation to make this choice was the same, which is almost like a mantra. It’s “using your talents to make the world a better place.”
To me, it doesn’t have to be exclusively about healthcare, right? You could be an engineer doing that. You could be a writer doing that. You can be a teacher doing that. But for me to use my talents means that for many years it was being the clinician and now it’s about championing clinicians.
Learn more about our curriculum experts by visiting our Faculty page. If you’d like to have a conversation about how Emergency Medicine content would fit into your clinician coaching initiatives, get in touch with us by Getting Started.
“It can be renewing to know that there are people going through something similar, that there are clinicians who have found joy in their practice after going through that time [of dissatisfaction], and that it’s both a personal and professional journey where these burdens can be shared.”