Doctor, heal thyself first

There are plenty of resources across Canada to help physicians stay healthy

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

From Nov. 30 to Dec. 2, 2006, I was in Ottawa attending the 2006 International Conference on Physician Health. It was organized by the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) and the American Medical Association (AMA) and was attended by delegates from Canada, the United States, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and many other countries.

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 careers, and learned about the progress 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 stigma associated with physician ill health, thereby decreasing barriers to physicians seeking timely personal care.

In 2003, a survey conducted by the CMA found 46% 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 information overload there is a significant pressure on physicians to satisfy the demanding public, and there is constant political battle within our health-care system to obtain a 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, the CMA set up a Centre for Physician Health and Well-being. Since then, every province in Canada has established programs to help physicians and their families cope with the stresses of work and encourage 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 a 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 lives to look after themselves and their families. They have learned to reduce the hours they work, they have learned to say “no” when they are tired and they have learned to balance their lives.

I belong to a foolish generation of older doctors who took pride in working round the clock. Readers of my newspaper columns in Medicine Hat, Alta., and those who have read my book, A Doctor’s Journey—an emotional and humourous look at life through the eyes of a doctor—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.

As one door closes, another one opens. So be brave, doctor, remember to heal thyself first.

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