High percentage doctors suffer burnout…or make that “moral injury”

A NEW BMA survey has found that eight out of 10 doctors are at a substantial risk of burnout.

The survey of the 4,300 doctors also found that more than a quarter had received previous, formal diagnoses of mental conditions, and four out of 10 said they were suffering from psychological or emotional distress which affected their work, training or study. Younger and junior doctors, medical students and those working longer hours are more likely to suffer from mental ill health.

Over 60 per cent of respondents with current or previous mental health diagnoses used alcohol, drugs and self-medications as a coping mechanism. The survey also uncovered worrying evidence of a lack of adequate support for doctors seeking help.

The BMA says that the survey is part of a larger project being led by BMA president Dinesh Bhugra to find ways to improve the mental health of the medical workforce and so improve patient care.

He commented: "As the only organisation that looks after doctors in all specialties and across the UK, we should examine how terms and conditions in which people learn and practise could be improved. That’s my challenge to the BMA and I hope it takes this on board.

"The longer people struggle on without support, the more chronic their conditions become, the more difficult it is to treat."

Recently in a keynote speech to the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) annual conference in Manchester today, RCP president Professor Andrew Goddard questioned use of the word 'burnout'. He said: "Our trainees are suffering burnout, our consultants are suffering burnout, even our medical students risk burnout. Hang on though, this is not the word we should be using. What we call burnout, that sense of despair, hopelessness and loss of joy is not due to a failure of the individual. It is a failure of the environment they work in, the culture of the workplace, the workload imposed on this. Some, particularly in the States, have started to call this process 'moral injury' as it puts the onus back on the system.

"Since I became a consultant in 2002 the number of emergency admissions has increased by over 50 per cent with a reduction of bed numbers by over 25 per cent. The only reason the NHS house of cards has not collapsed is that we as a health service have been working harder and harder to get length of stay down, but looking at the trajectory of the decline in length of stay this is plateauing.

"We feel busy, not just because the admissions are going up but because there are not enough doctors. The number of consultant posts we have been able to recruit to has fallen year on year over the past decade. The maths is simple. Last year just under 1400 consultant physician posts were advertised and we recruited to 800."

Professor Goddard says he is awaiting the new Workforce Implementation Plan from NHS England and NHS Improvement, but underlines how important it is for doctors to support each other.