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

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Why don’t we speak openly about doctor suicides?

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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