Chief wellbeing officer brings experience and empathy to MUSC

June 12, 2024


The Medical University of South Carolina’s chief wellbeing officer sees working in health care as both a calling and a privilege. But Heather Farley, M.D., also knows from personal experience that it can take a toll on people without the right support. She brings that hard-won wisdom to her new role.

“I’m an emergency physician by training. Never in a million years would I have thought that I’d be doing well-being work, because emergency medicine can sometimes feel like the antithesis of well-being. I was very, very driven and put all of my self-care needs last,” she said.

That changed after an emotionally wrenching experience on what started as a routine night. 

“I was working in our Emergency Department, and I was taking care of one of our staff members,” Farley said.

The woman had been having heart palpitations, a complaint frequently seen in the Emergency Department. The medical team did a full physical exam and put the patient on a heart monitor. They did bloodwork, a test called an electrocardiogram to measure her heart’s electrical activity and an X-ray. 

None of it pointed to a problem. And when Farley met with the patient, the woman wasn’t showing any symptoms. “I discharged her from the Emergency Department,” Farley said. 

The woman went into cardiac arrest on her way home. She died the next day.

“It was obviously really horrible for my patient and her family. But it was also the first time that I had such an unanticipated death on my hands. Everyone said, ‘You didn’t do anything wrong; you didn’t miss anything.’ But I just felt in my gut like I did,” Farley said.

“It was at a time when you didn’t talk about this stuff, and it wasn’t OK to say that you were struggling. So I thought, ‘You’re an emergency physician, get back on the horse, get back in there.’ And I hid it all.”

But hiding her feelings didn’t make them go away. “I spiraled professionally and personally. I got to a point where I didn’t want to be a doctor anymore.” When she submitted her letter of resignation, the chair of her department got her to talk about what had happened, including how she was still struggling with its aftermath.

“He insisted I try therapy and coaching and do all of the right things. It took me a good six months to walk myself back from the edge of that cliff. And then I started to talk to my colleagues. I shared what I had been through, and everyone else had had similar experiences, but we just weren’t talking about it to each other,” Farley said.

“Then I got angry, and I said, ‘We need to change this. We need to change the culture of medicine. We need to change the support infrastructures.’ And that was how I got into well-being work.”

Changing the culture

She started by launching one of the earlier peer support programs in the country. “In doing that work, I realized it had such a huge impact on creating a culture of self-compassion and mutual support versus shame and blame and silence,” Farley said.

“The peer support program helped move us to an environment where it’s OK to not be OK. And seeing that cultural transformation from just one program, I realized there’s so much more that we need to do. People’s professional fulfillment is so much broader than reacting to an event.”

Farley worked with her health system’s office of strategy to create a business plan for a center for work/life well-being. In 2016, Farley became the director of Provider Wellbeing at that health system, ChristianaCare, in Delaware. Three years later, she took on the role of chief wellness officer there.

That work didn’t go unnoticed. The New York Times featured her team’s work in a 2020 article about pandemic-related PTSD and burnout. More recently, Becker’s Hospital Review included Farley on its list of chief wellness officers to know in 2024.

Bringing skills to MUSC

When Farley heard about the opening for chief wellbeing officer at MUSC, she liked the idea of working not only with health care professionals, as she had been doing, but also students and residents as they develop their skills. 

Now, as she settles into her new job, Farley is using her first few months to understand the organization and talk with leaders and frontline workers on campus. “What’ll come after that is a gap analysis of our strengths and our opportunities. And then, we’ll dive into the strategic planning to create and execute on a vision for where we want to go as an enterprise. So it’s an evolution.”

Her job includes overseeing MUSC’s Well-Being Collective. It offers resources for everything from peer support to mental health care to professional development. As she assesses and expands those resources, she wants people to know she gets where they’re coming from.

“One of the messages that I want people to hear is that ‘We hear you. We understand working in health care is tough. Working on the University side is tough, too.’ The pandemic shone a light on the importance of investing in the well-being of our workforce and our faculty, staff and students,” Farley said.

“So we know that this is important. It’s very clear to me that there’s an enterprisewide commitment to the well-being of our MUSC community. And there’s a leadership commitment there as well.”

A commitment not only to supporting employees in stressful times but also looking for ways to remove what Farley called the pebbles in people’s shoes. 

“It’s about the administrative burdens that get in the way. They’re not value-added for anyone involved in the process. There’s a great campaign that the American Medical Association promotes called Getting Rid of Stupid Stuff. So I think we have a lot of opportunities across the enterprise for getting rid of some stupid stuff,” she said with a laugh.

“Well-being is not just about yoga and meditation. Those are important, but it is so much bigger than that. And at the enterprise and system levels, we need to attend to that culture of well-being and the efficiency of the work component. So that’s where a lot of my attention and work will be going in the coming months and years. I’m not talking about working harder, faster. It’s about making the work environment the best it can be.”

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