Doctor burnout crisis threatens overburdened health system, warns psychologist

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Doctors are experiencing unprecedented levels of anxiety, depression, and burnout as an underserved healthcare system grapples with the demands of a growing population, widespread mental health problems, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“Doctors are very adamant about what they see, dealing with grief, trauma and sadness all day long in their work,” said Sharee Johnson, Sale psychologist and executive coach for doctors.

But she says that in a profession where stoicism is valued and there is a stigma about seeking help, many tired doctors are on the verge of being tired.

Ms. Johnson, who was a guest speaker at the virtual Physician Burnout Global Summit in New York last month, researched the causes of burnout in doctors for her upcoming book, The Thriving Doctor.

Sharee Johnson is a Gippsland-based psychologist and executive coach for medical doctors. (

ABC Gippsland: Rachael Lucas

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She notes that the global problem of physicians burnout is underpinned by a number of common issues, including medical shortages, unsustainable working hours, bureaucratic protocols and under-resourced health systems.

“Burnout is not a mental illness. Burnout occurs because workplace conditions are not properly managed, ”Ms. Johnson said.

“All of these systemic and structural things have to be approached from a leadership perspective; no single doctor can really fix everything.”

Similar concerns have been raised by the Victorian Doctors Health Program, a confidential service for health professionals in need of help with mental or physical health issues that have seen calls doubled in recent months.

A woman in a doctor's uniform is standing with a stethoscope around her neck.
It is not uncommon for patients to be abused by long waits and heels of the hand between specialists vis-à-vis medical staff.(

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Need for systemic change

Ms. Johnson has seen growing hostility towards family doctors and emergency medical services, who are viewed by the public as “superhuman robots” who have little understanding of the personal challenges they face.

“The idea that you have a six week waiting list and every other patient that comes into your room tells you how long you’ve waited for you is not your idea of ​​the best medicine; it’s not their best plan. it’s not how they want to practice, “Ms. Johnson said.

Rural Doctors Association of Victoria President Rob Phair agrees that the medical system needs a rethink.

“Doctors’ human resource management, human resource strategies, and working arrangements need to be carefully reviewed to resolve the issue,” said Dr. Phair.

“This requires considerable commitment and support from both the state and federal governments – not just from the local health services themselves.”

A hand seen with a blue plastic glove against blue is holding a vial of clear liquid with a label that says COVID-19 vaccine
Many doctors are able to defuse online information wars.(

Pexels: Maksim Goncharenok

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With Dr. Search Google for answers

Ms. Johnson said repeated talks about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines have put pressure on doctors.

“Many patients are now questioning and challenging the medical expertise of doctors on the safety of COVID-19 vaccines, which has resulted in doctors having to justify and explain their expertise all day long,” Ms. Johnson said.

She believes the community needs to be more skeptical about online information.

The life-threatening consequences of burnout

Whether swiveling back and forth between trauma cases every 15 minutes in the emergency room or working through a waiting room with impatient patients – the “patient-first” protocol often means that doctors put themselves second.

Although Australia doesn’t have comparable data on the rate of medical errors per population, according to a study by John Hopkins Medicine in the US, approximately 250,000 hospital patients die from medical errors each year, making it the third leading death toll after heart attack disease and cancer.

However, an article published in the Australian Medical Journal in September 2020 estimated About 140,000 cases of diagnostic error occur in Australia each year.

Approximately 21,000 cases of misdiagnosis resulted in serious harm to a patient, resulting in 2,000 to 4,000 deaths.

Ms. Johnson said she would like to see medical practitioners’ safety comparable to other professions, and that medical and patient safety is recognized as a fundamental requirement prior to a consultation.

“Truck drivers, airline pilots, people at the petrol stations here are all strictly regulated with regard to the working hours they are allowed to work.

A lot of traveling salespeople have rules about how to drive before they have to stop, and rest or sleep in, and we just don’t get much of that around the work of our doctors. “

Combating the shortage of doctors in rural areas

As more people move to rural and regional areas, the pre-existing pressure on medical staff outside of metropolitan areas has only increased in the COVID-19 era.

Head shot by Dr.  Rob Phair
Rob Phair is President of the Rural Doctors Association of Victoria, which is developing a plan for the rural medical workforce.(

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The Rural Doctors Association of Victoria looked at issues such as streamlining accreditation and career development in developing a rural medical staff plan to train, train, recruit and retain more rural doctors.

“The medical culture has become increasingly sub-specialized and metrocentric in the last few decades. Many training centers require trainees to spend most of their training in large city hospitals, ”said Dr. Phair.

“General practitioners have been undervalued. We’re trying to reverse some of these trends.”

Technology and the future of healthcare

Ms. Johnson predicts that COVID-19 will lead to a post-pandemic wave of frontline health workers leaving the job as burnout and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) cases rise over the next several years.

She said the advent of telemedicine conferencing technologies, home improvement monitoring devices and artificial intelligence (AI) in the medical field could mean even less face-to-face contact with doctors.

“In the past you could only see a psychologist in your area; now you can go to telemedicine and see a psychologist anywhere in the world, ”she said.

But in a world of contactless counseling, Ms. Johnson said, doctors and patients need to work even harder to show kindness, compassion, and empathy to one another to build trust.


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