12 Aug 2016

Doctors 'not coping' with stress and overwork

11:34 am on 12 August 2016

Up to half of public hospital doctors are feeling exhausted and have symptoms of burnout, according to a new survey.

An image of a doctor typing on a laptop

Photo: 123RF

The survey - released today by the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists - also reveals high levels of burnout among women doctors, especially those aged 30 to 39.

In the first national study of its kind in this country, 3740 association members were questioned by email.

Of the 40 percent who responded, half reported having symptoms of burnout, including high levels of fatigue and exhaustion and 42 percent put it down to their work. Most said working with patients was the satisfying part.

Burnout was particularly prevalent among female medical specialists, with 60 percent reporting they were likely to be experiencing burnout, and 70 percent among female doctors aged 30 to 39.

Those working in emergency medicine, dentistry and psychiatry had the highest scores for work-related burnout, and those in psychiatry and dentistry had the highest scores for patient-related burnout.

Half of all respondents indicated that frustrations with management negatively affected their satisfaction with work, in addition to intense and unrelenting workloads, under-staffing and onerous on-call duties.

The association said the results were extraordinary and called on hospital chief executives to act swiftly to improve the situation.

Researcher Charlotte Chambers said doctors and other medical professionals were prone to burnout because they worked very long hours, and dealt with very emotionally and mentally challenging situations.

"But increasingly, and this is what came out very strongly from my research, is that they're operating in a very stretched public health system."

Dr Chambers said the high number in their 30s reporting burnout was also alarming.

"Young specialists are being faced with a system that is poorly resourced, they're having to do incredibly long hours of work and they're not coping."

Dr Lisa Dawson, a clinical leader in medical oncology at Whangarei Hospital in Northland, said constrained funding in the health system could make life difficult.

"We're appointed to these roles as clinical directors but often find ourselves in a position where it's actually difficult to make changes because that's often around resourcing and allocation of funding that's in the hands of the managers rather than the doctors."

She said things could be particularly tough from a burnout point of view in smaller hospitals.

"We're a very small team and it's not easy to reduce your hours or to go part-time or to take sick leave, and so we often work through these periods of stress. And I think that's what leads gradually to people becoming burnout."

Dr Dawson said she had good hours and good support, but there were strong pressures. "You often find yourself in a position where everybody's working incredibly intensely and there's just no room for people to fail. And so you push yourself and push yourself."

She said new, innovative ways would be needed to better support doctors in future.

Dr Yohan Morreau, a senior Rotorua paediatrician, said burnout had been around for a long time, but people were more aware of it now.

"Thirty years ago we might have just said 'look this person's grumpy and they're always grumpy'. Now we might ask ourselves, well actually is this person working too hard, are there issues that are contributing to it?"

He says it was the joint responsibility of clinical teams and managers to address the issue.

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