Physician Health Matters

Yes, physician health matters because physicians are a valuable human resource.

Few days ago, I was in Ottawa attending 2006 International Conference on Physician Health. It was organized by the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) and the American Medical Association (AMA). The conference was attended by delegates from Canada, U.S.A., Europe, Australia, New Zealand and many other parts of the world.

This year’s conference was 18th in the series since its inception in 1975. This year’s theme was: Physician health matters: preserving a valuable human resource.

The delegates at the conference heard about the latest research on physician health, about new skills to survive and thrive in their career and learned about the progress that is being made around the world to protect the health of physicians.

The organizers of the conference say that by raising physician health issues at an international policy level, the conference seeks to promote a healthier culture of medicine and decrease the stigmata associated with the physician ill health, thereby decreasing barriers to physicians seeking timely personal care.

In 2003, a survey conducted by the CMA found that 46 per cent of Canadian physicians were in an advanced stage of burnout. Physicians feel they have to work harder and longer hours because there is a shortage of medical manpower. With the information overload there is a significant pressure on physicians to satisfy the public and there is constant political battle within our health care system to obtain fair share of resources to provide good patient care. All these factors do affect physicians’ personal and mental health and their capacity to deliver good patient care.

In order to help physicians understand the importance of looking after their own health, CMA set up a Centre for Physician Health and Well-being (cma.ca/well-being). Since then every province in Canada has established programs to help physicians and their families cope with stresses of work and encouraging healthy behaviours within the physician population as a whole.

At the conference, I was pleased to learn that every physician in Canada has access to a physician health program. In Alberta, it is called Alberta Physician and Family Support Program. The program has a toll-free number and a physician or a family member can call this number for help 24-hours-a-day.
As we know, prevention is better than cure. In the last few years, medical students, interns and residents have been in the driving seat promoting ideas on physician health and well-being. They are educating themselves at an early stage of their professional life to look after themselves and their families. They have learnt to reduce the hours they work, they have learnt to say “no” when they are tired and they have learnt to balance their lives.

I belong to a foolish generation of old doctors who took pride in working round the clock. Readers of my column and those who have read my book, A Doctor’s Journey, are well aware of my trials and tribulations with my own health. I learnt my lesson too late. In the last four years I have tried to change my practice and find a better balance in life.

It is hard to break old habits. After all work is a kind of addiction. It takes about one to two years to “detoxify” oneself. During this process one needs an understanding health-care administration, understanding colleagues, good friends, and a devoted family. Count yourself lucky if you get all four groups rooting for you during your down time.

Remember, as one door closes, another one always opens. So be brave doctor, do not forget to heal thyself first.

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