for Health Care Professionals and Students
The basics. What is peer support?
In peer support, individuals affected by major stress talk freely and share worries and describe experiences of pressure with someone who has had a similar experience or background (NCI, 2006). Peer support promotes self-efficacy and hope by sharing helpful knowledge gained through experience and modeling coping strategies (Bagnall et al., 2015). Peer support also provides some social support which is among the most important things you can do to remain resilient during your medical training and in medical practice.
A key element in peer support is that the person offering support often has been through similar problems themselves or is at least familiar with the context of the stressful event, such as the work environment in which it happened. The peer’s similarity to the individual being supported provides a relatable model that facilitates change that may be needed (Bandura, 1977).
How can peer support be useful?
Social support is a very important and powerful stress management tool. It can mitigate some of the acute distress physicians encounter daily and even reduce the severity of later symptoms (Brooks et al., 2018; Maunder et al., 2004). When social support comes from a peer who understands at least part of what the individual has experienced, it is easier to feel understood, which helps make the support more effective (Shapiro & Galowitz, 2016).
Peer support is often used to help individuals dealing with mental health or substance use problems (SAMHSA, 2020), but has also been utilized in medical settings to support physicians experiencing distress related to their work (Shapiro & Galowitz, 2016). Medical students in our focus groups rated peer support as one of the most important factors in maintaining their well-being in medical school. They valued having someone who appreciates and understands the stresses that they face and offers useful advice. Much of this support happens informally but formal peer support programs can be beneficial, especially when students get a little training in how to optimize the support they give. Getting support from a more senior student can help prepare you and warn you about what is to come in your training.
Five Steps of Peer Support
The steps involved come naturally for most people trying to help someone. However, following a loosely structured protocol and knowing a few extra skills can help it go more smoothly and assure that the peer you are trying to help gets the help they need. The main steps are:
- Make a connection with your peer.
- Elicit your peer’s story about what is concerning them and offer empathy.
- Assess the impact on your peer including whether they are in crisis.
- Provide an intervention that helps address what you learned in the first steps. Listening compassionately is the most important part. You may also elect to share what you learned through your experience or offer information on a resource that may help them.
- Follow up with your peer later to see how they are doing.
Learn More in these training activities available on LIft:
- Peer Support for Medical Students (includes an interactive 3rd-year medical student case that illustrates peer support by a 4th-year medical student in a school-sponsored peer support program. Also includes an instruction module on peer support skills.)
- Pre-Clinical Academic Challenges An interactive 2nd-year medical student case that illustrates informal peer support by a third-year medical student.
- Physician Peer Support (includes an interactive case example of a young hospitalist receiving peer support from a peer in another department through the hospital’s formal peer support program. Also includes an instruction module on peer support skills.)
Bagnall A-M, South J, Hulme C, et al. A Systematic Review of the Effectiveness and Cost-Effectiveness of Peer Education and Peer Support in Prisons. BMC Public Health. March 25, 2015;15(1):290. doi:10.1186/s12889-015-1584-x.
Bandura A. Social Learning Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall; 1977.
Brooks SK, Dunn R, Amlôt R, Rubin GJ, Greenberg N. A Systematic, Thematic Review of Social and Occupational Factors Associated With Psychological Outcomes in Healthcare Employees During an Infectious Disease Outbreak. J Occup Environ Med. 2018;60(3):248-257. doi:10.1097/JOM.0000000000001235. PMID: 29252922.
SAMHSA. Core Competencies for Peer Workers. SAMHSA. April 16, 2020.
Shapiro J, Galowitz P. Peer Support for Clinicians: A Programmatic Approach. Academic Medicine. September 2016;91(9):1200. doi:10.1097/ACM.0000000000001297.