Physician Burnout is Alarmingly High

The Saskatoon Farm in Foothills County, Alberta. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)
The Saskatoon Farm in Foothills County, Alberta. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)

Earlier this year, Canadian Medical Association (CMA) President Dr. Katharine Smart appeared before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health to welcome a study on Canada’s health workforce. In her remarks, she explained physician burnout is at an all-time high and the health workforce is in the midst of a crisis.

Many concerned people have written about physician health and burnout over the years. I wrote a column about this on December 5, 2010 — about 12 years ago. Many medical conferences in Canada, USA and UK have discussed this subject and proposed solutions. But we are still talking about it. COVID-19 pandemic has made things worse for doctors and nurses.

More than 13,000 physicians across 29 specialties were surveyed ( between June 29 and Sept. 26, 2021. Across all specialties, 47 per cent reported feeling burned out last year.

According to one study, there are five things causing physician major stress — caring for the chronically ill, managing mental illness, improving communication with patients and other providers, keeping up with technology and using technology to engage patients.

Burnout has become a major risk for physicians. Doctors tend to focus on patient health, often at the expense of their own. Yes, physician health matters because physicians are a valuable human resource.

In 2006, I was in Ottawa attending International Conference on Physician Health. It was organized by the 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 was 18th in the series since its inception in 1975. The theme was: Physician health matters: preserving a valuable human resource. After all these years we are still talking about the same thing.

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 said 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 the past doctors have been very reluctant to seek help and lived in a culture of denial. Now more stressed-out doctors are willing to seek help. Society and medical disciplinary organizations have moved to better understanding of the challenges faced by stressed out doctors and their families.

Recent studies have shown where such doctors are identified and undergo treatment, outcomes seem to be good. Such approaches both reduce the suffering of ill doctors and protect the public.

We keep talking about physician shortage, nursing shortage, ICU bed shortage, hospital bed shortage and many other medical service issues. We have hundreds of overseas qualified doctors and nurses who cannot get a license to practise in Canada. The obstacles faced by foreign medical and nursing graduates are immense. Their education and skills are wasted.

Canada should have one licensing body for doctors like they have in the United Kingdom. If you are licensed to practise in one province then you should be able to practise anywhere in Canada. But I doubt this will ever happen.

I know we will be talking about this again 20-years down the road!

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