Leveraging Online Ecosystems for Self-Care Among Healthcare Professionals

This piece was originally written by Dr. Zouina Sarfraz, a member of the Self-Care Trailblazers Group and Manager of Clinical Research and Grants at doctHERs, as part of the SCTG’s efforts to elevate member voices.

Leaders across the world, including doctors, dentists, pharmacists, nurses, and others are leveraging technological platforms to reach and influence Pakistani students and young graduates in advancing self-care and setting new standards in health education, engagement, and participation across communities – all knit into one ecosystem “MedSphere – Powered by doctHERs.”

Medical students and doctors need to care as much for their own well-being as they do for their patients, which includes paying close attention to self-health and career goals. Recent guidance from the UK General Medical Council placed a strong emphasis on self-care as compared to previous versions detailing why “newly qualified doctors must demonstrate the awareness and importance of personal, mental, and physical wellbeing along with incorporating compassionate self-care into their professional and personal life.” With the world currently battling a global COVID-19 pandemic and the projected global shortfall of 18 million health workers by 2030–mostly in low and lower-middle income countries–self-care needs to begin at an early (undergraduate) level. Medical students and recent graduates are more often than not required to balance their time between many commitments including clinical attachments, teaching, exams, social life and extracurriculars.

However, studies show that medical students feel that they do not receive support or advice on work-life balance from the university of hospital staff, let alone self-care. What this tells us is that self-care and work-life balance are both needed tools for medical students and doctors to cope with delivering effective care for the masses and for lifelong learning. Greater self-awareness for healthcare workers may also lead to greater job engagement and compassion, improved patient care and satisfaction. Conversely, clinicians with lower levels of self-awareness have a greater likelihood of compassion fatigue and burnout, thereby impacting their line of work. Moreover, while the onus is regularly placed on medical school staff in supporting students and developing skills, digital technology has boosted supportive advances for individuals in managing their health and work-life balance. In this context, self-care can be described as a continuum, ranging from daily wellbeing and taking care of mental health and general health conditions.

The World Health Organization Guideline on Self-Care Interventions for Health and Well-Being recommends “maximizing occupational health and staff safety measures, including providing mental healthcare and psychosocial support and promoting self-care strategies.” With the rise of modern technology, it is not uncommon to come across a self-care manual for the elderly or those with chronic disease. However, finding a web-link or so much so as an image targeting self-care or work-life balance specifically for medical students is a rarity, even more so in a developing country like Pakistan. Dr. Nishwa Azeem who graduated from Fatima Jinnah Medical University in Lahore expresses her concerns about the need to change the system for medical students for the better. She states that a lot can be done, and it is the onus of the current generation of medical students to take on some of the challenges and strive for a better health system. Moreover, women in the Pakistani society are less likely to center career goals early on, making it necessary to solidify strong gender-representative digital platforms to cultivate a sense of work-life balance.

Nishwa Azeem, a doctor who recently graduated from Fatima Jinnah Medical University, poses.
Nishwa Azeem, a doctor who recently graduated from Fatima Jinnah Medical University (Lahore, Pakistan) vocalizes her concerns about the need to improve work-life balance for medical students across the country.

From our experience working with healthcare professionals at doctHERs, both remote and on-site, we’ve learned that it is critical for them to pay attention to their emotional and professional well-being to remain healthy and effective, particularly in times of crises. The payoff from higher emotional intelligence, when individuals prioritize themselves, manifests in many ways such as i) self-awareness, ii) self-management, iii) relationship management and iv) social awareness. Numerous self-care resources focus on personal coping strategies for healthcare workers and students. The saying typically revolves about getting enough sleep or healthy meals, etc., but these resources often focus only on the resilience of said individuals. The gaps here are organizational and structural conditions that contribute to good self-care outcomes for healthcare professionals and students. 

We find that self-care and work-life balance are two sides of the same coin. The conditions within which healthcare professionals and students work tend to shape their priority and values, thereby influencing perceptions of self-care and also patient care. The COVID-19 pandemic has made these constraints and influences more visible. The application of technology (i.e., digital ecosystems) to encourage and engage individuals in self-care and cultivate a sense of ownership to careers seems like a viable approach in Pakistan where around 20,000 students get into a medical college each year but with few or no systems in place focusing on self-care and work-life balance.