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Physician Interview Series: TEDx Speaker and Physician Coach, Dr. Maria Phalime

I am beyond excited to present my interview with Dr. Marie Phalime. I remember the first time I came upon her work, I was up late and on YouTube (of course). I typed in "leaving medicine", scared and curious what I would find as the result. Her TEDx talk came up and I was enthralled. Her speech gave me chills. I love TEDx speeches and can binge through a dozen at a time, but for some reason, I stopped watching and, instead, felt compelled to reach out to her. I went on LinkedIn to search for her name, find out what she did now, and to let her know how powerful her speech was.

I found her profile and sent her a long message about how much her speech meant to me and how it made me feel. I was surprised to hear back from her so soon and how kind she was (exactly how I'd imagine!). Of course, her generosity extends to this interview where she shares her journey, experience, and advice to everyone.

Before you read the interview, check out the TEDx speech titled "The Doctor Who Walked Away":

Begin Interview:

1. Tell me a little about yourself and how did you come to do your TedX talk? 


I grew up during the apartheid years in South Africa, so life was tough for me as a Black girl living in a segregated country. I came from a working class family, and sacrifices needed to be made in order to keep the family going. I was fortunate, however, that my parents were firm believers in the value of education. They saved and sacrificed to send my brother and me to private school, which opened my eyes to possibilities beyond the circumstances I was born into.

I did well at school, and I wanted to make a difference. So, when I was in high school I decided I wanted to be a doctor. I enrolled at the University of Cape Town, first for a Bachelor of Science degree and then Medicine. I loved studying, and when I graduated I anticipated having a long and successful career as a doctor. Unfortunately, my career didn’t work out that way. I burned out as a junior doctor, and I elected to leave clinical practice.


In 2014 my memoir titled “Postmortem – The Doctor Who Walked Away” was published, which chronicles my journey through Medicine and the reasons I chose to walk away. After the book was published I was invited by the organisers of TEDx to share my story on their platform.

2. What was your life like after TedX?

The talk enabled me to spread my message beyond South Africa’s borders. I have come to realise that many of the challenges I faced in my medical career are common to the practice of Medicine, irrespective of the country context in which people work.


3. You’re a career coach, life coach, speaker, and award-winning author; wow! How did you learn how to do all of this?
After my book was published I was approached by many doctors who shared their own stories with me. I then realised that, even though I had intended for my book to bring closure to my medical journey, the book had also opened up a new chapter that required me to keep sharing my story and to help other doctors to thrive despite the challenges they face. This is why I qualified as a coach – to empower others.


4. If our readers wanted to become one of the things you’re doing, how can they learn these skills? Do you help physicians transition into doing coaching, speaking, and writing themselves?


I help physicians to identify their career goals, to get clear on what it’s going to take to achieve them, and I support them on their journey. I’ve learned that often we think “it will be better over there”, whereas we need to find better ways to deal with what’s going on over here.


5. There are so many coaches out there, how do physicians pick the right one for them?

I think it helps for physicians to be coached by other physicians who have qualified as coaches. The culture, training and challenges within Medicine may be difficult for people who haven’t walked that path to understand.

Coaching happens through conversations; it helps when you speak the same language.

6. When does a physician know that it may be the time to seek the help of a physician coach?


We all need a helping hand from time to time. Coaching is about getting the help you need to achieve the goals and results that are important to you. Therefore, the times to reach out to a coach are typically: when you feel stuck; when you are overwhelmed by a particular goal; and when you are in transition – either out of the profession or moving into a different level of responsibility.


7. What is a coaching program like? How is it structured? How long is it? How much should physicians budget aside for coaching services?

Coaching programs differ, but the essentials of any program are: getting clear on what the client wants to achieve through the coaching; identifying where they are, their strengths and challenges; sketching out a roadmap to get the client from where they are to where they want to be through building their inner competencies such as self awareness, new habits and ways of being; ongoing feedback and review to ensure that the client is continuing to move in the desired direction. The actual coaching journey is co-created by the coach and the client, taking into account the particular challenges and circumstances of the client.

Fees vary considerably! Physicians looking to hire a coach need to ensure that they speak to a number of prospective coaches to ensure the right fit between their styles, methodology and fees. In addition to a monetary budget, a physician considering coaching needs to also “budget” time and energy to allocate to the coaching process.


8. What are tips you can share for any physician dealing with burnout?


Firstly, understand that burnout is not an indication of a personal failing or weakness. Burnout arises as a consequence of working in environments that predispose people to burning out.

Therefore, dealing with burnout is not only about bringing changes into how we live and work, it’s also about addressing the workplace conditions that drive and perpetuate burnout.


Valuable questions to ask yourself are:


- How can I do more of the things that fuel me?

- How can I do less of the things that drain me? (This includes self-inflicted stressors like perfectionism and perpetual success chasing).


- If I can’t change anything in my work environment, how can I create opportunities for recovery and replenishment (e.g. scheduling leisure time with loved ones; pursuing
hobbies; learning new skills; finding interesting projects to work on)


- How will I know when I’m running on empty? What is my “go-to” strategy for coping?


- Who can reach out to for support?

End Interview

The interview made me think a lot about how stress and burnout are finally being discussed in medicine. A few months ago, I went to a conference for physicians in my state and one of the workshops with the highest attendance rate was the one on physician burnout. I think it should've been its own conference because many physicians experience this, yet they may not actually have anyone to support them or feel comfortable sharing these feelings with. As physicians, we put high expectations on ourselves that, like Dr. Phalime says, things like burnout feel like a symptom of failure. I always get chills when I think about Dr. Phalime's speech where she says "some dreams must be allowed to die" because that's how you go on to live a better life for yourself. 

Check out her website and book "Postmortem". For further questions, you can reach out to her by email (Maria@MariaPhalime.com) or via social media (Twitter: @MariaPhalime)