It is a universal belief that when a doctor is physically fit, the patient also exudes confidence. But it is safe to say that unlike any other profession in the world, the practice of medicine can be exceptional and overwhelming. Even though the profession brings an immense level of personal and professional fulfillment, it comes at the cost of an enormous degree of work anxiety and psychological distress. Studies worldwide indicate that healthcare workers, particularly doctors, are vulnerable to mental health issues. Over the last decade, the medical fraternity as a whole has been subjected to stress, burnout, and fatigue.
The COVID-19 pandemic escalated the global crisis in mental health, fueling short- and long-term stresses and disturbing the mental health of millions. According to WHO, the pandemic has caused a rise in anxiety and depressive disorders by more than 25% during the first year alone. Simultaneously, mental health services have been severely disrupted and the treatment gap for mental health conditions has widened. With mental health problems affecting lives, families, workplaces, and even communities, it is time to deepen the value and commitment we give to mental health. This World Mental Health Day, let’s take this opportunity to protect and improve the mental health of our healthcare providers.
Dr. Nilima Vaidya Bhamare, President of the Association of Medical Consultants in Mumbai, believes, "We must work towards safeguarding our doctors, nurses, and other medical staff from long working hours, patient load, and the overall perils of the working environment. It is important to take matters into your own hands and work towards the health and well-being of oneself, so adopting a wholesome approach towards physical, mental, and emotional wellness is a must."
According to a survey, the three most prominent factors leading to occupational stress for doctors during the pandemic were: long working hours, too much work allocation, and insufficient time to complete the work. These three factors were directly related to an increasing number of patients per doctor, which led to the over-allocation of work as the number of patients was rising. As per the National Medical Commission (NMC) doctor-patient ratio of 1:834, through which India has suffered from an acute shortage of doctors and nurses from time to time. The combination of the anxiety of living with a deadly pandemic, the monotony and loneliness of social isolation, longer work hours, and gravely sick and dying patients have stirred doctors into consuming more alcohol.
As per observations, there has been a rise in the drinking habits of people since the pandemic began, despite the known health risks and negative side effects of alcohol. According to Nielsen, national alcohol sales spiked in the US, with in-store sales increasing by about 55% and online sales up 243% in 2020. Following this, the WHO issued a warning about alcohol use during the pandemic and its potential to exacerbate health concerns and risk-taking behaviors.
The recent findings of two Medscape physician surveys revealed the drinking habits of US physicians as the pandemic progressed. According to Medscape’s 2021 Physician Burnout & Suicide Report, roughly 42% of doctors experienced symptoms of burnout, and more than one-fourth of respondents said they were consuming alcohol to cope with these symptoms.
According to Medscape’s companion survey, Physician Lifestyle & Happiness Report 2021, the pandemic appears to have exacerbated drinking across the world. Currently, five or more drinks a week is standard fare for about 30% of Baby Boomer physicians, 26% of Generation X physicians, and 22% of millennial doctors. Almost a quarter of physicians were in the category of non-drinkers, but those who did consume alcohol reported a rise in their drinking.
Many doctors are also facing sleeping problems, fatigue, and headaches because of heavy workloads. And more than half of all medics (55%) are suffering from burnout from the emotional exhaustion of their jobs. The BMJ Open medical journal recently revealed the grim picture of UK doctors’ mental and physical well-being. It indicated that doctors were finding it hard to switch off from the responsibilities involved in caring for patients. 6 in 10 (61%) doctors think about work when they go to bed, while 49% have trouble sleeping as they feel guilty if they postpone tasks.
These burnouts among healthcare workers have resulted due to various reasons: Administrative workload, longer working hours, infection-prone work environment, and a disregard for personal health issues. These burnouts, if not addressed on time, can have adverse impacts on patient care. Several studies have linked burnout to the risk of medical error and a 17% increase in medical malpractice suits. Self-perceived major medical errors have also been associated with high levels of burnout, depressive symptoms, and a decrease in quality of life. So how can doctors avoid burnout, deal with stress, and address their health concerns? Where do they start?
Destigmatize mental health: Studies have indicated that healthcare practitioners tend to suffer in silence due to the perceived stigma associated with experiencing "stress" and "mental illness." It is time to normalize the conversation around the mental health of doctors so that it makes it easier for professionals to ask for help when needed, while on the job.
It is okay to ask for help: Everyone needs help at some point or another. Being a healthcare professional does not protect them from depression or burnout. It is okay to fall off the wagon and ask for help when you need some.
Consider joining/ starting a peer support group: Have sessions with your colleagues or peers at the end of shifts to help each other work through issues such as medical decisions, emotional issues, or other professional concerns that one may have experienced during the shift. This is especially helpful for doctors to feel supported after a particularly tough day.
Switch to a physician-driven Smart EHR system: Doctor burnout is becoming an epidemic, due to many reasons including pressures of being productive, imperfect electronic health record (EHR) system, and limited face-to-face time with patients. This added "click burden" is a source of frustration for many doctors. There is a need to improve the doctor’s experience by creating an innovative EHR system that is not only physician-driven, but also improves patient safety, reduces physician burnout, and increases physician job satisfaction!
If a doctor experiences any symptoms that suggest mental health concerns, they should consult a mental health practitioner at the earliest opportunity.
Innovations like WONDRx enable doctors to digitize their handwritten prescriptions in real-time, allowing them to experience decreased click burden and more time with patients. These physician-driven innovations have the potential to streamline virtual workflows, and the accurate and appropriate management of health information for future advancements.