Burnout warning for clinicians

Clinicians with health problems must not be afraid to seek help.

  • Date: 30 January 2012

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

Doctors or dentists 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 General Medical Council has just launched a new advice website in a bid to tackle this issue. Your Health Matters 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 him or her 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.

The GMC explains that while it aims to protect patients it is also there to support healthcare professionals. Doctors are encouraged 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.

However the guidance emphasises that only a small number of sick doctors are referred to the GMC each year and there is usually no need for GMC involvement for those who 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 restricting their practice appropriately.

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 guidance Raising and acting on concerns about patient safety, which comes into effect on March 12, 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.”

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

Help is also at hand for dentists suffering from health problems. The Dentists’ Health Support Programme offers support to practitioners with alcohol and other addictive illnesses, while the British Doctors’ and Dentists’ Group, formed in 1975, is a mutual support society for doctors and dentists who need help with drug or alcohol problems.


ACTION: Register with a GP and seek help early for health problems before they impact on patient care. Seek MDDUS advice before contacting the GMC.

This page was correct at the time of publication. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

Save this article

Save this article to a list of favourite articles which members can access in their account.

Save to library

Related Content

Coroner's inquests

Equality, diversity and inclusion workshop

Equality, diversity and inclusion workshop

For registration, or any login issues, please visit our login page.