Medicine can be a super tough gig.
Doctors know very well that there are particular challenges and stresses unique to the business of keeping humans healthy. The Australasian Doctors’ Health Network, a website that caters specifically for the health needs of medical professionals and students, reports doctors regularly encounter stress factors such as:
Lack of collegial support
Fear of misdiagnosis or making mistakes
Presenteeism (turning up for work when unwell)
Monitoring of performance and competence
Fear of burnout
Shiftwork /being on-call
These stresses in turn place pressures on relationships, family life and life balance. They may lead to anxiety and/or depression as well as impacting on physical health. Medical professionals clearly experience similar tensions, worries and obstacles as other professionals, and yet, despite working in the area of healthcare, they are less likely to feel supported and encouraged in looking after their own health.
A Medical Journal of Australia article discussing impediments to doctor’s physical health, stated that doctors are reluctant to seek medical advice and often delay seeking medical care or early screening tests. Along with feeling inhibited about consulting with another doctor, many doctors don’t have an established relationship with an independent GP.
A National Mental Health Survey of Doctors and Students conducted in 2013, it was found that ‘…that the level of very high psychological distress was significantly greater in doctors in comparison to the general population and other professionals’. It is obvious with regard to doctors’ health, both physical and mental, that support is needed and a change in workplace culture is necessary.
So what can doctors do to improve and prioritise their personal health?
Once again the Australasian Doctor’s Health Network website provides some helpful suggestions. The network places a strong importance on the need for medical professionals to have their own independent GP. Establishing a relationship with another trusted doctor ensures the delivery of evidence-based preventative care. Within this space a documented history can be created and the opportunity for health promotion discussions becomes available. Too often doctors rely on ad-hoc ‘corridor consultations’ with colleagues, which is not a practise that can adequately address serious health concerns. Having an independent GP often facilitates access to the healthcare system that many doctors (as patients) describe as being difficult.
To overcome some of the difficulties doctors face in accessing healthcare most states and territories have developed advisory services. These services provide extensive information and links to resources for medical professionals based throughout Australia. They are hubs that enable practitioners to find local support, such as the Doctor’s Health SA, an independent and profession-controlled organisation dedicated to improving the health of doctors and medical students. Across the country organisations, like this one in South Australia, provide options for after-hours GP appointments and can often supply a list of independent community GPs trained to meet the specific needs of busy medical professionals.
At a national level, the RACGP runs a members support program for registered medical practitioners to access professional advice “…to help cope with life’s stressors which may include personal and work related issues that can impact on their wellbeing, work performance, safety, workplace morale and psychological health”. The RACGP has also published an extremely comprehensive self-care guidebook called ‘Keeping the Doctor Alive’. The guidebook encourages medical professionals to discuss the challenges they face, it also provides ways to identify and cope with stress, stress indicators, pathways to work through issues, various coping strategies and national contact numbers.
If you are feeling any of the pressures itemised in the bullet-point list above, or know of someone who is, then these resources are well worth checking out. For those looking to improve the health of their own practice or workplace, encourage your colleagues to seek out and regularly check in with their own independent GP. Value the notion of doctors taking care of their own health. Model this behaviour yourself, particularly if you are in contact with junior doctors. A simple sentence like, “Sorry I’m late, I’ve just been to the doctor.” can go a long way to changing the culture and attitudes of a practice.
Medicine is a tough gig, and we need to take care of one another.
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