Burnt out, broken down and overwhelmed – these aren’t the words you’d typically use to describe your local GP.
On the contrary, doctors and medical professionals are frequently thought of as switched on and ready to tackle any issue. They’re practitioners at the top of their game.
Yet, the sad reality is many medical professionals are struggling under the immense pressures of their work, with some even tragically taking their own lives.
Think about it. How many jobs are there where your decision could kill somebody? That’s the burden doctors carry daily – a burden that they willingly accept in the service of others.
Mental health-related issues among medical practitioners have been swept under the rug for far too long, and it’s time to act so we can protect these valuable members of our community.
A DAY IN THE LIFE
We typically need a doctor’s help when emotions are running high, when we’re at a low point or not feeling our best, or maybe have life-changing news.
We turn to them when we fear the worst about that lump we discovered while taking a shower, the positive pregnancy test we took an hour earlier or when we’ve had enough of a niggling cough that won’t go away.
In return, there’s an expectation doctors will be authoritative, empathetic, alert and highly informed in their dealings with us.
But a day in the life of a doctor isn’t so simple. When we arrive at the practice, we expect the doctor will solve our issues swiftly and with care.
Then comes the part when we leave the practice. We carry on with our day, armed with a diagnosis, advice or medication to help us on the road back to health.
But what about the doctor who must quickly ready themselves for the next consultation? There’s every chance they just told someone they have a terrible illness, and now they must reorganise their thought pattern for the next patient.
This emotional seesaw is repeated several times throughout the day, every day.
Yet doctors continually remain stoic in the face of such pressures because it’s ingrained from the early days of their training.
THE WARNING SIGNS
We’ve taken huge strides as a society to raise awareness of the prevalence of mental health issues.
For example, mental illness is now the number one reason patients will see their GP, accounting for 62 per cent of all consultations.
However, the mental health of our medical practitioners needs far greater attention and action. A survey by Beyond Blue found one in five medical students and one in 10 doctors had suicidal thoughts in the previous year.
This statistic viewed by itself is alarming, but even more concerning was the answer to the question: Why wouldn’t you get help for anxiety or depression?
The survey noted more than one in three respondents cited “embarrassment” as a barrier to treatment, or a perceived “impact on registration and right to practice”.
Furthermore, four in 10 agreed “many doctors think less of (other) doctors who have experienced depression or anxiety”.
Let’s take a step back to unpack what these statistics tell us.
Firstly, our doctors are under immense stress leading to higher than average incidences of mental illness and suicide.
Secondly, doctors are reluctant to get the help they need.
It shows stigma is rife within the medical community and doctors who admit they need mental health assistance are somehow tainted or inferior.
This goes a long way in explaining why doctor suicide is a pressing issue.
The fear of being reported by another doctor for seeking help is real and we need laws that do not actively discourage anyone from accessing medical treatment.
Doctors should have the same rights to confidential treatment as their own patients.
Education around this issue must start on the first day of training for a medical student if we have any hope of eliminating stigmas associated with seeking help for mental health issues. Medical professionals need to feel comfortable about voicing their struggles without concern for being judged, bullied or held back from progressing.
There’s more we can be doing as patients too.
The first step is to recognise that your medical practitioner is human like you. This isn’t to say their standard of care should be affected by their personal circumstances but rather patients can be cognisant of the pressures doctors are facing.
Even a simple thank you as a token of your appreciation can make their day.
I know I’ve personally been touched by the kind words of a patient I was able to help, and it gave me a tremendous boost to face the rest of the day ahead.
We also need more support services in place to help doctors with their workloads.
On a daily basis, continually feeling rushed, running late and not giving some patients adequate time can really contribute to stress levels.
For example, rebate systems need to be reviewed to ensure doctors have enough time with those who require longer care – especially high-risk groups such as those with mental health issues or the young and elderly.
It’s perhaps ironic to think that the people we trust to tend to our health and wellbeing are also the ones in need of such care.
Health professionals take the Hippocratic Oath so they can make a difference in the lives of others.
However, they also need our support in return, and it’s time we took this need seriously.
This piece by Charlotte Middleton was first seen on ‘The Ipswich Advertiser‘, 24 November 2018.
Dr Charlotte Middleton is a GP and the Chief Clinical Adviser at MedicalDirector