By Dr. James M. Dahle, WCI Founder
Coaching seems to be all the rage these days. While coaches used to be just for athletes, now people from all walks of life are using coaches to help them with many different parts of their lives. The basic proposal is pretty simple. A coach provides education, motivation, and insight gained from years of experience working with people in similar situations. Just like a coach can help an athlete to move differently or think differently and reach a higher level of success, a coach can help an executive or a physician to achieve their best.
Over the last few years, there are rapidly increasing numbers of physician coaches and physicians being coached. It has been fascinating to watch it evolve. Six or eight years ago, physician online entrepreneurs seemed to gravitate toward blogging. Then it was developing, running, and selling online courses. Now, those entrepreneurs seem to be gravitating toward coaching. I don't know the percentage of physicians that have hired a coach who subsequently became a coach, but it seems to be pretty high. The true believers would say they found something so beneficial in their lives that they now have a missionary zeal to share it with others.
Physician coaching, as a general rule, involves a physician coaching another physician through some aspect of their lives. Most commonly, it is an episode of burnout. However, it might also involve passage through a malpractice lawsuit, becoming a physician executive, running a practice, making the transition to retirement, or even starting a non-medical business. If a doc is coaching another doc, it's physician coaching. It usually involves changing mindset, learning new habits, and eliminating negative ways of thinking that are keeping the doctor from doing their best at whatever it is that they want to do.
What Types of Coaching Are Available?
This list continues to rapidly expand, but here are the areas where physician coaching is now occurring:
- Physician Life Coaching
- Executive Coaching for Doctors
- Physician Leadership Coaching
- Medical Practice Business Coaching
- Business Coaching for Physician Entrepreneurs
- Career and Job Search Coaching
- Financial Coaching
- Coding and Efficiency Coaching
- Onboarding Coaching
- Transition to Retirement Coaching
What Are the Benefits of Physician Coaching? (Does a Coach Work?)
There is precious little data on this topic. Anecdotally, both physician coaches and their clients speak of amazing, life-changing breakthroughs that have solved their burnout, enabled them to reach academic milestones, and helped them to build amazing, profitable businesses. They frequently cite increased motivation, comfort, and confidence. Naturally, a coach doesn't do anything to you or for you. They can only help you do something for yourself. If you are ready to make some real changes, a coach can aid you in that transformation.
Some of the best data on the topic came out of a JAMA article in 2019 about the effects of physician life coaching on burnout. The article was titled, “Effect of a Professional Coaching Intervention on the Well-Being and Distress of Physicians: A Pilot Randomized Clinical Trial.“ They took 88 internists, family physicians, and pediatricians and put 44 of them randomly into the “coaching group” who received 3.5 hours of coaching over six months. They were allowed to get coaching on whatever they wanted. This is what they discussed:
At the end of that six months, the coaching group had the following benefits:
- Emotional exhaustion scores decreased by 19.5% (increased 9.8% in the control group)
- Burnout symptoms decreased by 17.1% (increased 4.9% in the control group)
- Overall quality of life increased by 20.3% (increased 1.5% in the control group)
- Resilience increased by 4.2% (increased by 2.0% in the control group)
Coaching did not seem to help:
- Depersonalization scores
- Proportion of physicians with high depersonalization
- Job satisfaction
- Measures of engagement and meaning at work
So yes, coaching works. This coaching group received only 3.5 hours of coaching over six months as part of this study. With additional coaching and a well-designed program, job satisfaction and meaning should also see improvement. However, the process is highly dependent on you wanting it to work. The more you put into it, the more you get out of it.
How Much Does a Coach Cost? Is It Worth the Money? How Much Should You Invest?
Unfortunately, the answer to these questions is all over the board. The coaching intervention in the study above cost about $1,400 per person for 3.5 hours of one-on-one coaching ($400 an hour), and that was several years ago. That is certainly on the low end of what you should expect to pay. There are numerous options in the four-figure range, but that is usually only for a limited time period of a few months. If you need ongoing help, it is going to cost more. I know some physicians who are paying as much as $60,000 a year for their life coach and some business coaching programs that charge $150,000 to as much as $1 million per year.
Most of them say it is worth it, but there is obviously a huge psychological incentive to not feel like you are wasting your money after such a significant purchase! A non-physician, non-executive coach can also be much cheaper—as little as $200-$1,000 per month—but most physicians want to be coached by someone who has been in their shoes.
You could keep the cost down by enrolling in group coaching programs, as well. Some coaching programs are “evergreen,” meaning you can start at any time. Others are episodic, meaning you can only enroll during their enrollment periods every quarter or even less often.
If you use a coach heavily, you may find they are your most expensive professional advisor. You may end up paying your coach more than your physician, attorney, accountant, financial advisor, and therapist combined. But for a short period of only a few months, the cost can be pretty reasonable compared to the value received. Consider a doctor so burned out that he or she is ready to quit tomorrow. If that coach can help them recover and design their ideal life and practice and help them to stay in the career another decade or two, what is that worth? Millions of dollars. So investing a few thousand to make millions can obviously be very worthwhile. The same principles can apply to business and other types of coaching. If your business grows 30% faster with a coach than without, what is that worth? Like most business investments, the return on investment cannot be known upfront.
Some burned-out doctors also suffer from depression and anxiety. Many physicians prefer to engage with a coach rather than a therapist to avoid stigmas associated with mental health issues and to avoid licensing and credentialing issues that may come up from seeking mental health care. While coaching may help with these conditions, this is not really their role. Both coaches and therapists help you to correct maladaptive thought processes, but if you have serious mental health conditions, we recommend you seek out professionals who specialize in treating those in addition to or instead of a coach who also happens to be a physician.
Who Should Consider Physician Coaching?
Coaches and other advocates would say everyone should have a coach. Certainly those struggling with burnout are highly likely to benefit, which may be as much as 30%-50% of doctors. If you find yourself struggling with balancing home and work, achieving what you want in your career, starting a business, or building a practice, chances are good you can benefit from meeting with a coach. Many coaches even offer an introductory discovery session, where all you have to lose is your time.
What to Look for in a Physician Coach
If you're convinced that physician coaching is for you, it is time to take the next step and start looking for a coach. Here are some things to consider:
Coaches specialize. If you are struggling with burnout, you don't want someone who specializes in coaching you to build your online business. You want a burnout coach. That person has worked with dozens of other burned-out docs and maybe was even burned out themselves at one point. Match yourself to what you need. Ask them who most of their clients are and what issues they help them with. Beginning coaches naturally try to be all things to all people (I'll coach you on burnout, finances, and business of all kinds!), but after a while, most find their niche and no longer have to take any client they can get.
Gray hair is useful in financial advisors, and it is useful in coaches. Parents notoriously don't like taking advice from anyone whose diapers they changed and it's pretty hard for a 55-year-old doc to hire a 32-year-old doctor who is two years out of residency doing burnout coaching. But it's not just age, and besides, lots of people are wise beyond their years. It's more about experience coaching. The more years someone has been doing this and the more clients they have worked with, the better. Lots of coaches come and go as they try their hand at it. Try to find one with at least a couple of years of experience and at least 100 previous clients.
Just like in medicine and finance, there are lots of bodies out there training and certifying coaches. I like certifications. If nothing else, it tells you they're serious enough about their craft to have sought out at least something extra. Since there are no legal requirements for a coach (thus you see why many prefer to be financial coaches rather than registered investment advisors), the buyer must beware and do sufficient due diligence. Most programs last from 10 weeks to six months. Every coach will argue their program is the best, but there is no objective comparison available other than time spent getting the certification.
Coaching, perhaps more so even than a financial advisor, is about fit. It often helps if the coach shares a lot in common with you (gender, race, background), but empathy, compassion, and communication style also matter. There is not necessarily a right or wrong, but there may be a right or wrong for you.
If the coach has no availability, they're not going to do you much good. A program that only opens twice a year may not be open when you need to enroll in it. Make sure your coach will actually have time to coach you when you have available time. For many busy docs, that might mean the coach needs to work evenings and weekends, so be sure to ask.
Finally, consider the price. If one coach costs twice as much as another, are they really twice as good? Or are they simply charging you “the doctor price?” Like with any other service, you get (to keep) what you DON'T pay for.
Where to Find the Right Physician Coach for You
Ready to hire a coach? Here at The White Coat Investor, we recognize the need to have trusted coaching resources. Burnout is something that affects a huge number of doctors today. Whether you are looking for private coaching, group coaching, online coaching courses or a mix (we recommend the Burnout Proof MD program), we have the option you need. Visit the WCI Physician Burnout Coaching Page to find the right solution for you. You can do this and WCI is providing the tools to help!
Not Ready for a Coach but Looking for Other Resources
Coaching represents a commitment, not only financially and time-wise, but also in the form of a commitment to change your life. If you are not quite ready to make that, we would encourage you to seek out other resources until you are. These may include books, blogs, and online courses such as the following:
- Stop Physician Burnout
- The Burnout Fix
- Mayo Clinic Strategies to Reduce Burnout
- The DNA of Physician Leadership
Created by WCI, this course contains the material from our most popular “Fire Your Financial Advisor” course plus a new section on Physician Wellness and Burnout Prevention. The Physician Wellness presenters include Dr. Nisha Mehta, Dr. Fahd Ahmad, Dr. Dawn Baker, Dr. James Turner, Dr. Bonnie Koo, Dr. Jordan Grumet, and Dr. James Dahle. This material qualifies for up to 8 hours of CME/CE credit.
“So, I have you to thank for re-igniting that spark, which has led to getting our financial plan in order. And, I’ve even taken your advice on how to channel some of that financial energy after I’d done most of the big things: teach others. Last month, I began teaching a personal finance curriculum for my department’s residents! Hopefully, we can all take what you started to reach more and more physicians!”
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What do you think? Have you tried physician coaching? What was your experience like? Comment below!