Reaching breaking point

Doctors who fail to seek help for health problems risk burnout 

THE job of a healthcare professional is a demanding one and some under-pressure doctors may find that while they are trying to care for their patients they are neglecting to care for themselves.

Doctors may think they are only hurting themselves by suffering in silence, but studies have shown that ill health can lead to poor performance which in turn could jeopardise patient safety.

MDDUS has dealt with a number of cases involving clinicians who have been subject to a complaint or fitness to practise proceedings relating to mistakes brought about by health problems. Often, such mistakes could have been avoided had the medic sought help sooner.

The role of a trainee doctor can be a very stressful one and it’s crucial to start as you mean to go on by being aware of your own wellbeing and not being afraid to ask for help. Doctors are renowned for not making the best patients and may sometimes deny health problems, but looking after your own health is vital.

The General Medical Council has just launched a new advice website called Your Health Matters which encourages doctors who may be concerned about their health to seek help early, before the problem spirals out of control.

It acknowledges that “the very qualities that make a good doctor, such as empathy and attention to detail, can also make them vulnerable to stresses and burnout or to turning to drugs or alcohol.”

They urge doctors to register with a GP and to trust them to treat you in confidence rather than conducting unofficial “corridor consultations” with colleagues. The guidance warns doctors not to self-diagnose or self-medicate for anything more than minor ailments.

Doctors should also pay attention to warning signs of illness and take them seriously. For example, feeling low or irritable or having poor concentration or low energy may be signs of burnout. Doctors are encouraged to try to maintain a healthy work/life balance and consider discussing concerns with family, friends and colleagues.

Similarly, the website advises that if you are worried about your drinking or someone close to you has raised concerns, then chances are you are drinking too much and you should seek help.

The GMC explains that while it aims to protect patients it is also there to support healthcare professionals. It encourages doctors to inform the regulator if they have a health condition or a drug/ alcohol problem that may put patients at risk. The GMC will then be able to assess the doctor and make recommendations on how to support them and help them back to safe practice. But before contemplating making any contact with the GMC in regards to their health, a doctor should contact MDDUS as soon as possible.

The guidance emphasises that only a small number of sick doctors are referred to the GMC each year, adding: “It is difficult to provide a list of health conditions which we need to know about because our involvement relates, not so much to the health problem itself, as to the effect that the health problem may be having on your ability to care for your patients.”.

Usually, there is no need for the regulator to be involved in cases where doctors have insight into the extent of their condition, are seeking appropriate treatment, following the advice of their treating physicians and/or occupational health departments in relation to their work, and are restricting their practice appropriately.

MDDUS is very experienced in helping doctors with health problems that impact upon their fitness to practise. Whilst the GMC’s guidance does not, as yet, expressly advise doctors to consult their medical defence organisation, MDDUS strongly advises members to seek our advice before contacting the GMC.

Doctors who are concerned about a colleague’s wellbeing are advised to be sensitive and encourage them to seek help. More detailed advice is available in the GMC’s revised guidance Raising and acting on concerns about patient safety, which comes into effect on March 12, 2012 and states:

“You must protect patients from risk of harm posed by another colleague’s conduct, performance or health by taking appropriate steps immediately so that the concerns are investigated and patients are protected where necessary”. It adds: “If you believe that patient safety is or may be seriously compromised…you should put the matter right if that is possible. In all other cases you should raise your concern with the organisation you have a contract with or which employs you.”

So remember: register with a GP and seek help early for health problems. And always seek advice from MDDUS before contacting the GMC.

Joanne Curran is associate editor of FYi