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This Doctor Can: Coaching doctors through difficult times

In this piece, Dr Rachel McCoubrie talks about her work supporting doctors and how coaching can help with self-confidence, limiting beliefs, dealing with anxiety and promoting resilience and positivity.

Working in University Hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS Foundation Trust as a palliative care consultant, I found a tremendous satisfaction in helping with difficult symptoms, and felt privileged to be part of the sensitive and personal discussions around my patients’ hopes and fears towards the end of life.

I worked with many wonderful colleagues and met countless inspirational patients and families. I laughed and cried; I loved being part of making a difference for people going through such difficult times.

I undertook extra duties, such as the RCP Question Writing Group, Standard Setting Group and Exam Board for the Specialty Certificate Exam in Palliative Medicine, as well as leading on various trust-wide and network-wide projects.

As much as I enjoyed the work, it took its toll emotionally. Despite working less than full time and taking 3 months unpaid leave as a career break, I began to question whether this was what I wanted to do for the next 20+ years. I started contemplating careers outside medicine.

Around the same time, our 10-year-old was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, and for 9 months we watched her progressively lose her ‘joie de vivre’ and struggle to do the normal activities of life. We were recommended a neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) coach, who in just three sessions helped her find her way back to being a happy, lively girl again. It was so inspirational that I decided to learn about NLP and coaching. That was in 2017.

Since then, I trained as a coach and NLP master practitioner. My prior experience in palliative care helped when it came to communicating effectively – rapport building, active listening, incisive questioning, reflecting, summarising, getting to the crux of what the coachee would like to happen, and together exploring possible ways of getting that.

I began to coach privately on my non-NHS days, and knew I had found my new niche when I repeatedly found myself feeling elated after a coaching session. Helping people to find their ‘Aha!’ moments and move forwards after often long periods of feeling ‘stuck’ felt like such a wonderful, positive process. It was at this point that two fantastic job opportunities arose in my trust and I was successfully appointed into both.

The first was Lead in Coaching, Mentoring and Wellbeing for doctors and dentists – 2 days/week, funded for 1 year by our hospital charity Above and Beyond. The second was Career Support and Mentor – providing 1:1 support for junior doctors 1 day/week (substantive).

In July 2019, I took a secondment from clinical work for a year to take on these two roles. At the end of that secondment, my charitable funding was renewed for another year and I resigned from palliative care. As I’m sure you can imagine, this was not something I did lightly. To step away from a role I have trained for and worked in for so long wasn’t easy. There was no popping of champagne corks. But this is not the story of a failed career in medicine – quite the reverse. I had a job I enjoyed, and was good at for a substantial period of time, but I was ready for a change. What I have now feels like a positive step for me into the next chapter of my career. It is new and fresh; I feel inspired and have a new enthusiasm for learning. I spend my free time reading and doing courses and webinars to expand my repertoire of skills for supporting our staff, because I want to. I am interested. The more I do, the more I want to do. Coaching, mentoring, positive psychology, the list goes on.

The learning does not just benefit other people. There is so much that I use for myself, and for my teenage girls, in everyday life. There are tools that help with self-confidence, limiting beliefs, dealing with anxiety, promoting resilience and positivity. Things I wish I had learned decades ago and which have been so useful for getting through all that 2020 has brought us. In Bristol, the first wave of the pandemic wasn’t as bad as initially expected, but before we had managed to get back to anywhere near normality, the second wave has hit us much harder.

People are tired, stressed, and anxious about what the winter months will bring. Wellbeing and support services are working hard to make sure we have a whole range of resources and support options for those on the front line.

I absolutely love my doctor support role. As well the pastoral and career support for all doctors, I offer coaching for the medical and dental leads. Helping our doctors feel listened to, valued and supported is incredibly rewarding, especially at this difficult time. Working collaboratively and strategically with our wellbeing team, our clinical psychology team, our postgraduate medical education team and the deanery towards improving the support we offer and promoting wellbeing across our trust feels like a very worthwhile change in career path. We are always taught to put patients first, but if we don’t look after our staff and help them to stay happy and healthy, and to feel valued and supported, how can they continue to provide excellent safe and compassionate care? You can’t pour from an empty cup.

I hope this gives a sense of how much of a positive step this has been for me in my career, and how much enthusiasm I have for developing this role in the years ahead. Although this doctor has stepped away from clinical work, I continue to feel I am doing a worthwhile and important job; I still get to help and support others; I am constantly learning and developing my coaching and support skills; and I have a new energy and a tremendous sense of job satisfaction as I make my way through this next chapter of my career.


Would you like to share your experience of becoming a doctor? Get in touch on Twitter via @thisdoctorcan.