Checking in – how well do you feel?

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Most of us on a day to day basis just get through the day with The Big C –  That’s right: c.o.f.f.e.e.!!. The line up at the hospital café first thing in the morning before ward rounds is worse than peak hour traffic. There are mobile latte vans that visit our surgeries in private practice. We need our coffee. When we have breaks in the day, we have more coffee, and yes, we like the taste, and the smell, because its amazing!!! But, how well do we feel without our coffee? And that’s a telling point…..

If we are needing sugar and caffeine to get through the day, then there is something not quite right. Apart from its taste, it is a stimulant, it heightens the nervous system, and then it drops us again.

Animals don’t need stimulant drugs to make it through their days. Dogs do great without it. They’re pretty happy too. So, as an interesting note, why do we?!

Can we really say that we are living well and truly vital if we are needing stimulants to get through the day?!

The history of doctors and their association with stimulants is well known. Not, that it is something to aspire to, just something to be aware of 🙂 I once read that one of the founders of a famous US teaching hospital was addicted to cocaine having to give himself a dose each day just to function….I do not know for sure if that story is true, but as we know in medicine our rates of addiction are high, and they are not even measuring our addiction to caffeine… 🙂

Most of us are so used to feeling tired that we think it is normal. But, whilst it might be the norm in our profession, its actually is not natural to feel so tired and exhausted that you can’t get through a day without a stimulant! That is a sure sign that we are not as well as we could be. We’ve just become used to this way of living that it is ordinary for us, and its become a collective team activity at morning tea time, or post ward round….

As health care experts, why do we accept being so tired as our normal? Why are we tired only a few short hours after waking up when sleep is supposed to regenerate us and give us energy?

Can we say it is something of being truly well to need a drug like caffeine (as tasty as it is!) to keep us going?

Lets face it, as doctors, we are so used to dealing with the most horrendous diseases, that we consider that if we don’t have a disease that we must be well!

But being chronically tired, is not part of a state of well-being.

Being well is more than the absence of diagnosed disease.

To me, a state of well-being is feeling fully energized, joyful, vitalized on waking and during the day, having a sustained zest for life. It is a wonderful feeling on the inside, not just the absence of cancer.

Most of us feel grateful that we don’t have a horrible disease. But what if there was more to well-being than just not having disease! Continue reading

Hey doctors – can we care for ourselves?

doctor stethoscope adj

As doctors we spend all of our time learning to care for others.

Our entire education is spent learning all of the latest facts and figures and protocols so that we can provide the best possible health care for others. But in all of that, do we take the time to truly and deeply take care of ourselves? And if not, why not?!

Burnout rates in medicine are 40-55%. This is not just something to be a teeny little bit concerned about in the medical profession. This is a global pandemic! It is affecting literally more than half of the medical profession, globally.

It would seem in fact, that as doctors, everywhere, that we are not very good at taking care of ourselves.

In fact, our culture promotes the opposite.

what the adj

Our culture is about celebrating how tired we are, celebrating how much we can push ourselves beyond our limits. We celebrate and encourage black and dark humour which distances us from people. We celebrate sleep deprivation and long and hard work hours.  We decry sensitivity and feelings and distance ourselves from those inconvenient human sorts of things as much as possible and if we feel them we Never. Ever. Let on. that we are affected by things. Continue reading

World Health Day – who cares for the carers?

I spoke with Lucy Dahill and Dr Clayton Spencer about the state of the health and well-being of the medical profession. It was a great conversation and clear there is so much more to be shared and discussed!! Here is the pod cast. Enjoy!! ( PS: this is my first ever podcast. Super exciting 🙂 ) Here’s to more open conversations in the profession about our own health and well-being. How can we take care of ourselves, and can we?

Do we take the time to treat our patients?

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At a medical conference, for doctors, at the end of last year, we were informed in one talk that:

  1. Doctors don’t like treating patients
  2. They don’t have time for it
  3. They don’t do it well, and not only that
  4. They are not interested in doing it well

Needless to say as a person who loves medicine and people I was somewhat stunned (and I must confess, moderately incensed!) to be told from the pulpit so to speak, how I do and feel about my job from someone who has never met me or spent time in my clinic. And I am not alone in this response and feeling given the conversations I had with others who were in the same room as me when this invective was unleashed.

I heartily disagree with the statements that were presented to us. I personally feel they are coming from a burnt out jaded perspective, from someone who has given up on medicine and people in medicine. But this is not the first time I have been apprised of such attitudes in medicine. I have read papers that have said that doctors ought to have their attention focused on diagnosis only, rather than the day to day treatment of patients. And I have had conversations with peers who also feel that is where we need to have our attentions focused. Some people are proposing that doctors ought to ‘just diagnose’ and ‘other people’ ought to do the treating, following protocols, such as nurses.

It concerns me deeply to hear such perspectives gaining momentum and I am concerned for the future of health care and medicine.

Medicine is about people.

People are the heart of medicine. Continue reading

Is the Medical Profession in Crisis?

resuscitation adj

Across the globe, increasingly evidence is coming to light that people in our profession are suffering.

Its considered that we have about twice the rate of suicide as the general public. With reported rates being anywhere between 1.1-5.7 times higher than the general public6. It is known that our suicide rate is higher than any other professional group.

We have a higher rate of suicidal ideation than the general public, with 25% of doctors at any time having thought about killing themselves3. 10% in the last 12 months3.

We have a higher rate of both high psychological distress and higher rates of anxiety than the general public3.

We have far higher rates of burnout than anyone else in society. In fact, between 40-55% of the profession are burnt out with rates increasing over the last decade9. Burnout is not a benign condition. It is associated with exhaustion, depersonalisation and a feeling that the work is not worthwhile, and perceived errors. It is associated with higher rates of cardiovascular disease, depression, anxiety, diabetes, suicidal ideation and musculoskeletal complaints1. Furthermore, it is associated with higher rates of medical errors and lower rates of patient satisfaction2,7. Continue reading

Can we support one another in Medicine?

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In Medicine, we learn that life is about marks and doing work for patients. We are not taught to work together nor are we taught of the importance of working together in a collegiate manner. We are not taught to take care of ourselves or to take care of our colleagues. Too often there is open hate and hostility on display between doctors in hospitals and in private practice. Stress and tension run our relationships and very often judgement and condemnation of each other, whether vocalized or hidden, are the order of the day. In this day and age where the mental health of the profession is worse in many regards than that of the general public and suicide rates are higher than the general public, are our relationships with each other important in medicine?

I’ve been in Medicine now for over 20 years. One of the things that I have observed over the years is that our relationships with each other in Medicine are in general sadly not good. We are competitive. We work in isolation as a general rule. We don’t really support each other or ask for support, or allow support when it is on offer. We are the ones who are supposed to be ‘OK’. We learn to work with random people in teams in hospital and we keep the relationships ‘professional’ and consider them short term professional relationships that we have to ‘survive’! They are about work and they are about training. It is rare to develop relationships at work that are truly personal, ones where you feel truly safe where you can share and seek and give support and care that is non-judgmental. As doctors, we don’t let each other in, and we only share certain aspects of ourselves. We place huge expectations on ourselves and each other leaving little to no room for a true care.

In Medicine we learn that you have to be ‘tough to survive’. We learn to toughen up, and to not show any emotion. We pretend that we can ‘handle it all’. If we show that we are not able to ‘handle it’, then we learn that we are seen as defective, as a nuisance, and a problem who is not tough enough to handle it all. Those who are seen as weak in the profession are ostracized, eternally. I to this day remember a woman in my intern year who took a few days off ‘sick leave’ after a long stretch of days working, and was later seen down the street with her husband. She was judged within an inch of her life and complained about by many of the interns and she lost all credibility, forever. No care or concern was given towards her mental health and whether or not she was coping with the job or, whether she needed support. Support?! That thought never even entered our minds! The only focus was to judge her for not coming to work because she was clearly able to walk and to move and had not broken all 4 limbs.

And this is how it is in medicine. If you can breathe at least through one nostril, and stand up – at least on one leg, you must come to work no matter how you are feeling. There is no care and concern for how you are feeling. Mental and emotional health does not rate a mention. In retrospect, this woman was clearly struggling with the work and her life and she did the best thing she knew at the time to best support herself.  Looking back, she actually needed our support too! At the time she was judged and condemned as not being committed, as causing a strain on the rest of us who had to ‘pick up the slack’. And this is a common scenario in Medicine, more particularly in bigger institutions where people do not know one another. None of us took the time to consider the bigger picture, or to care for her health and well-being – as none of us took the time to take care of ourselves either. And how often does this happen in medicine when one part of the team is not doing well and the rest of the team instead of coming in to support and care simply judges and gets impatient? Continue reading

Why don’t we speak openly about doctor suicides?

depressed young doctor adj

Just over a week ago, I read an obituary in a medical publication about a young talented and clearly lovely junior doctor (not pictured above). Her life and achievements were celebrated, but naught to mention was made of the cause of her untimely death. Some colleagues and I surmised it was suicide, but then we wondered why it was it was not mentioned in the obituary?  At the time it felt as though there was an embargo on talking about doctor suicide, and we wondered why. There is a shame about discussing it in public, and if this is the case then how can we possibly learn about the things that lead to suicide in our colleagues? We discuss medical cases openly so that we might learn, but why not of our colleagues who reach a point of no return? Subsequently it has been confirmed in the media that the death was indeed a suicide, but it was not mentioned in the medical publication.

It is well known that doctors do have a higher rate of suicide than the general public. These results have been reported as being up to 5.7 times higher than the general public, with female doctors being at the greatest risk, with rates between 2.275.7 times higher than the general public. 

These results are quite staggering, but to speak truthfully, the fact that we have suicide at all in the profession is indicative of a deep dis-ease in our profession.

It concerns me to question:

How is it that can we have people who are caring and sensitive by nature, who choose to do medicine to care for people, ending up so despairing of life and caring so little for themselves that they take their own life?

And worse, that their colleagues and medical friends do not notice their decline to that point and are often completely surprised to hear of the death of a colleague in such a fashion.

How can this possibly occur in a system about health ‘care’?

These suicide statistics have been known for some time yet until now, no true action has been undertaken.

The NSW Health Minister has now instructed his staff that they have 1 month to find a solution to the doctor suicide crisis. It is great to see urgency brought to this matter, but is 1 month really enough and will it really get to the root of the cause? Continue reading

What does it mean to ‘take care’ of yourself?

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Care is a vital part in health ‘care’. But what does this even mean?

Does it mean that we feel sorry for other people and are motivated to do good things for them from that sadness and sorrow?

Does it mean that unless we feel emotions for their experiences that we do not care?

Does it mean showing emotions and reactions to the experience of another?

Does it mean that we are not caring if we don’t react or display any emotions to what a person is experiencing?

Or is there something more to care?

We know that people who indulge in behaviours like smoking, drinking alcohol, eating too much and taking recreational drugs, going out late and not sleeping enough and not eating nutritious food are not ‘taking care’ of themselves. Repeated behaviours like this lead to an accumulated toll on the body.

But I question where do these behaviours come from? We would call these ultimately behaviours of self abuse, but what motivates a person to make these choices? In the case of excessive eating, perhaps a person may feel that they are taking care of themselves, using food as a place of care. When they feel down or sad, using food to make themselves feel better, to feel comforted. People who go and smoke may also feel as though they are taking care of themselves in some way, taking the time to smoke to help them to cope with life. Feeling comforted by the burning of the smoke filling their lungs.

But is comfort really the same as care? Now there’s food for thought!

What if the things that we have been thinking of as care, are actually forms of comfort?

And what if comfort is more about numbing what the body is feeling rather than deeply taking care of the body, providing the body with what it truly needs to heal?

What if instead, care is about providing the body what it truly needs to heal, to feel healthy and truly well and vital? Rather than give us something that makes us temporarily feel ‘better’? Continue reading

Work-Life Balance for the busy doctor – my top five tips

theatre-doctorsAs doctors and as medical students we hear a lot about this thing called ‘work life balance’. We know that we need it, we are told that we need it but we are not really told what it is, why we need it and how to get it.

By the very notion that it is called ‘work life balance’ we learn that ‘work’ is a harmful thing to be minimised and that ‘life’ is something completely different, something that we are missing out on when we are ‘working’. This actually only compounds the stress that we are feeling when ‘work’ is ‘taking up’ our time!

It’s definitely unhealthy for us to be working all the time, to the extent that we neglect other areas of our health, physical well-being, neglecting exercise, neglecting good nutrition, neglecting our relationships, our emotional health and well-being and neglecting the need that we have for sleep or rest, or even perhaps other aspects of expression that we feel are vital for our health and well-being.

But work itself is not an issue. HOW we work can be an issue.

We are told that work life balance is taking days off, taking holidays, making sure that we have hobbies etc and we might think that it is having time to go out to restaurants for dinner. These things are fantastic and fun, but on reflection, are these things truly what create consistent day to day great health and well-being for us?

We know and we are told that we need ‘work life balance’ to stop us from burning out or from getting sick. It is important for Continue reading

Work Life Balance – How to get it

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‘Work life balance’ is something that is different for all of us and our understanding of it and what we want this to mean and how we understand it may change as we age and have more life experience.

Essentially the key foundation of achieving true work life balance is to know yourself as a person, and to know that there are many facets to you as a person and they are all equal and deserving of and needing care in all areas. If one of these areas is ‘out’ so to speak then it has a knock on effect on all of the other areas of our lives as well.

Its key in this to know that work is not separate to life and not something to try and to be minimised, but rather to understand that it is simply a part of life, just like everything else.

It’s important in life that we take care of all areas of our life, starting with taking care of our physical and emotional health and well-being. When it comes to work-life balance we need to know where to focus and when. The approaches we take and choices we take will be different for all of us at different times as our circumstances are all different.

Often we seek ‘work life balance’ when we feel work has taken too much of our focus and time in our lives and our health and well-being has been affected, leaving us feeling tired, unwell, rundown and unfulfilled in other areas.

In reaction to that excess of being dominant work focussed, we can then sometimes focus on doing things like entertainment to distract us from work and in that some of our activities may actually be harmful for the body like drinking alcohol, eating excessively and/or unhealthily, sleeping late or too little, or perhaps having risky hobbies.

But if we do not live well in time when we are not ‘at work’ then this can create tiredness and fatigue and at times more ill health that then carries on to how we feel when we are at work. This approach also leads to an unhealthy impact on the body, no different to the unhealthy impact of being too consumed by work!!

If we want to feel well, and we don’t feel well from being consumed by work, it doesn’t make sense to compound ill health with choices outside of work that make us more unwell…

Many of us seek to work less when we are feeling tired and run down, and how we are at work may be part of this, however how we are in non-work time equally affects us.

We are made tired by both how we are at work and what is going on at work as well as how we are in our ‘personal’ time.

Continue reading