Forging friendships in your medical field can help your patients—and you

By Jules Murtha | Fact-checked by Jessica Wrubel
Published May 3, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Research shows that harnessing physician-peer relationships may lead to improved patient experiences with specialist care, especially in terms of shared decision making, explanations, and changes in prescribing.

  • Experts say that physicians can embrace peer support to address the cognitive, physical, and emotional challenges associated with doctorhood (especially since the onset of COVID-19).

  • According to the AMA, doctors may initiate peer support by inviting their peers to share, listening with empathy, and encouraging them to learn and teach, among other strategies.

In 2020, the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic led many physicians to feel stressed and alone in their struggle to care for patients amid a global health crisis. As a result, many physicians turned to peer support groups for guidance and a space to share, according to the AMA.[]

Now, researchers are uncovering the hidden benefits that physician-peer relationships may offer patients, too. In order to help improve patient experiences and better support fellow HCPs, doctors can create space to share, reflect on, and reframe their experiences with one another.

The patient benefit to befriending your colleagues

The benefits of fostering physician-peer relationships are clear: Doctors who engage in these connections can offer each other support, guidance, and the knowledge that they’re not alone.

But forming friendships with your colleagues may offer more to patients than you might think.

A 2023 study published by JAMA Internal Medicine looks at the effects of physician-peer relationships on patient experiences with specialist care.

Researchers gathered a total of 8,655 patient referrals to 502 specialists across 13 specialties. Of the 9,920 specialist visits, 306 (3.1%) featured a PCP-specialist dyad, which was supported by a co-training tie (at least one year of time spent together at the same institution during medical school or postgraduate medical training).[]

The results show that co-training ties between PCPs and specialists are linked with an increase in patient rating of specialist care by 9.0 percentage points.

On top of that, researchers found that PCPs and specialists who had some level of co-training experienced clearer communication with one another, according to JAMA Internal Medicine.

Finally, further analysis revealed an association between co-training and higher engagement in shared decision making, as well as prescription revisions on behalf of specialists.

Overall, the results of the JAMA Internal Medicine study suggest that patients may receive higher quality care when their PCPs and specialists are engaged in physician-peer relationships—adding to the list of benefits that these kinds of connections can offer in healthcare.

Tips for forming supportive physician-peer relationships

If you’re ready to form close, supportive relationships with your peers, here are some tips to get started.

An article published by the AMA recommends taking the following steps in order to harness the power of peer support:[]

  • Invite your colleagues to share.

If you’re in a high-pressure work environment (or, say, navigating a pandemic), don’t wait for your peers to show visible signs of distress. Instead, extend an invitation to share what’s on their mind.

  • Listen with empathy.

“If you’ve ever been supported by anybody and that person is really giving their full caring attention to you in and of itself, that feels incredibly wonderful,” said Jo Shapiro, MD, FACS, an associate professor of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at Harvard Medical School in Boston in the AMA article’s related webinar.

Go the extra mile to hear what your colleague is saying, and practice empathic listening throughout.

  • Reflect and reframe.

Use your words to reflect back the experiences your peers shared with you, and in doing so, normalize their emotions about it.

You may also validate them by assuring them that any feelings they may have about their circumstances make sense.

Then—without minimizing their emotions—do your best to recontextualize their experience, reminding them of all the good they’re doing by pursuing a path in medicine.

  • Encourage learning and teaching.

Both individuals and teams of people benefit from learning from each other.

Dr. Shapiro echoes the importance of the sentiment, saying, “sharing is caring.”

"I’m encouraging people to share what they’ve learned and helping their colleagues not just get through this, but actually take better care of patients."

Jo Shapiro, MD, FACS, an associate professor of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at Harvard Medical School 

Remember: Becoming closer with your peers can help you and your patients. The next time an opportunity arises to forge a new friendship with someone in your field, take it—and see where it takes you.

What this means for you

Physician-peer relationships have the power to create more positive patient experiences in addition to a support network for doctors who may benefit from one. You can initiate closer relationships with your peers by inviting them to share and remembering to listen with empathy. You may then reflect on what they’ve shared, followed by reframing their emotions surrounding it. Finally, you may help them to cope with their struggles and offer resources for additional support.

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