Department of Surgery Organizes and Implements Resident Wellness Program

With the goal of improving wellness and reducing burnout during surgical training, the University of Kentucky College of Medicine Department of Surgery has adopted a General Surgery Resident Wellness Program. The wellness program curriculum is modeled on pioneering wellness programs around the country, and it addresses the mental, physical, professional, and social well-being of UK’s surgery residents.

The program parallels a national movement on the part of surgical residency programs to improve well-being during training. The FIRST trial indicated that mistreatment is common during training and that 39 percent of residents experience burnout. As a result of these findings, a SECOND trial was started to directly study well-being and develop strategies to improve resident wellness. UK is one of over 200 programs nationally that have been enrolled in the five-year study.

To develop the wellness program, the department of surgery established a General Surgery Wellness Committee. David J. Worhunsky, MD, a member of the pediatric surgery faculty, is the chief wellness officer for the department and chair of the wellness committee along with Sandra Beck, MD, professor of surgery and general surgery residency program director.  The committee subsequently established a Surgery Resident Wellness Fund to support projects intended to reduce resident burnout and improve their sense of well-being during their demanding training years.

The committee started by developing a mandatory wellness curriculum via a resident mentorship program similar to the educational didactics that are inherent to our surgical training programs. Each residency class is paired with faculty mentors and meets on a monthly basis. The goal is to develop a formal curriculum that focuses on the non-operative technical skills of surgery (NOTSS), including communication, leadership, situational awareness, and teamwork. The meetings can focus on any of the four key areas of wellness. For example, the senior resident mentor hosted a financial well-being talk as part of professional wellness. The junior residents will have a financial well-being talk in February.

Implementation of wellness programs has been a challenge in 2020. However, considering the additional stress of the COVID-19 pandemic on residents, these programs have been of vital importance, Dr. Worhunsky said. This is highlighted by the ability of the wellness committee, especially Sara Brown (one of the coordinators for the residency program), to arrange for the delivery of over 3,000 healthy dinners to residents on the front line of COVID-19 care.

In addition, the committee arranged to deliver Kats Kare Baskets, wellness baskets for sick residents that include fluids, snacks, cold remedies, and a letter of support from the committee. Dr. Beck and Dr. Worhunsky delivered several of the baskets to residents’ homes personally, making them even more meaningful.

Perhaps the most popular addition to the Resident Wellness Program has been the monthly supply of healthy foods and snacks to the resident workroom, courtesy of the Wellness Fund.  Dr. Worhunsky goes to Costco once a month to purchase the snacks and then delivers them to the workroom—usually with some help from the on-call Emergency Surgical Services residents to carry them from his car. 

printmakingOther benefits of the wellness program include a refrigerator donated to the intern workspace, Zoom social gatherings and exercise groups, and an outlet for creative expression through the ArtsCAFE, a collaborative involving general surgery, UK Arts in HealthCare, and the UK Fine Arts Institute which is organized by Sara Brown. Once the pandemic ends, the committee looks forward to multiple additional projects, including monthly social rounds for the residents as well as quarterly resident/faculty gatherings.

Alumni and faculty are encouraged to show their support of this initiative through donations to the Surgery Resident Wellness Fund. For more information, visit the wellness program’s web page. There is a fund established to support and enhance services within the program.