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Center for Professional Health celebrates decades of hope, healing

Mar. 14, 2019, 8:48 AM

Anderson Spickard Jr., MD, left, William Swiggart, MS, Charlene Dewey, MD, MEd, and Ron Neufeld, BSW, LADAC, stand on the 11th floor of the Oxford House, where the Center for Professional Health was launched in 1987.
Anderson Spickard Jr., MD, left, William Swiggart, MS, Charlene Dewey, MD, MEd, and Ron Neufeld, BSW, LADAC, stand on the 11th floor of the Oxford House, where the Center for Professional Health was launched in 1998. (photo by Susan Urmy)

by Kelsey Herbers

Vanderbilt’s Center for Professional Health is one of the institution’s greatest “hidden gems” — but it’s a resource Charlene Dewey, MD, MEd, hopes colleagues within the Medical Center will never need.

Launched on the 11th floor of the Oxford House more than 20 years ago, the center provides education and training to physicians on professional health and wellness.

While the center offers retreats and workshops for all health care professionals, the bulk of its work revolves around three courses designed for physicians who are being counseled due to behavior deemed inappropriate by their institution or their state’s medical board.

Since the courses were first offered, more than 4,000 physicians from all 50 states and three countries have enrolled to receive training on the misprescribing of controlled substances, boundary violations and distressed behavior.

The center’s founding members — William Swiggart, MS, Anderson Spickard Jr., MD, Ron Neufeld and the late David Dodd, MD — recognized the lack of educational opportunities available for professional wellness and responded with action.

“We discovered that physicians get little training on the rules and regulations around things like sexual boundary violations,” said Swiggart. “The guidelines are clear in the medical board literature, but the reasoning behind them isn’t always discussed.”

Each class consists of lectures on regulatory requirements and small-group activities designed for peer support. All three courses also use role play as a healing technique, allowing physicians to practice new behaviors and gain feedback from peers.

“So often, physicians come to us carrying so much shame,” said Neufeld. “For them to connect with other people and find out they aren’t the only one experiencing these challenges is life-changing and transforming for them.”

“We had a physician who came back to the same course three times because he wanted to get the same caring feeling from the group. It was therapy for him,” said Spickard.

In a letter to the program following his completion of the course, one physician wrote, “I was so scared and hopeless when I attended your course… Today, I am a wellspring of hope, gratitude and love for myself and others. I am once again practicing medicine, but this time as a whole human being.”

The center’s founders agree that what makes the program unique is its approach of holding individuals accountable while also enhancing their healing.

“Regulatory boards are not courts of law, so when it comes to their license, physicians may or may not be able to give testimony,” said Swiggart. “One of the things our courses do is give them a voice and a chance to tell their side of the story.”

“These courses took something that is extremely punitive and turned it into a learning process and a launching point of hope moving forward,” added Dewey, who serves as the center’s co-director.

Aside from its work with physicians across the country, the center also provides resources for colleagues on the Vanderbilt campus through its Faculty Wellness Committee, which presents professional and wellness topics roughly two times per month during departmental meetings. Topics are chosen by the department’s chair, with options including prescribing, burnout, team management, building emotional intelligence and transitioning into retirement, among others.

Several courses have also been transformed into online modules that are approved for Continuing Medical Education (CME) credit for physicians who simply want to expand their knowledge.

“I want the Vanderbilt community to see us as a place to gain new skills and training — not just as a place for remediation,” said Swiggart.

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