Physician, Heal Yourself
This commonly used phrase alludes to the readiness and ability of physicians to heal
sickness in others but not able or willing to heal themselves. Other phrases that can convey
the same message include, “practice what you preach” and “charity begins at home”.
Doctors (and other healthcare professionals) often make the worst patients. We know very
well what a healthy lifestyle entails and we are very good at dishing out good advice to our
patients but not so good at taking or practising what we advise others. It doesn’t have to be
like that. It is about time we start looking after ourselves.
Taking care of your physical health is important. The healthier you are physically and
mentally, the more efficient you will be, the greater will be the good you will be able to do
for others and the happier you will be.
Know yourself, know your numbers! Do you know what your BP is? When was the last time
you checked it? Undiagnosed hypertension is rampant in the general population so won’t be
different among doctors. Recent studies show that the black population is more sensitive to
sodium than non-black populations so watch the salt in your diet.
Do you know your cholesterol levels? Have you had an ECG done recently? We have all
known colleagues who showed no signs of illness, suddenly collapse and die of heart attacks
or some undiagnosed illness. Of course not all of these deaths will be avoidable but some
may well be.
Ladies, are up to date with your smears and mammograms? All those who have been invited to for colonoscopies or FOB for bowel cancer screening, have you responded? If you are over 50 and have a family history of prostate cancer, are you monitoring your PSA? Checking your numbers regularly will not stop you getting cancer or indeed other diseases but may help you get an early diagnosis and therefore a better prognosis.
Even more important than physical health is our mental health. It is a well known fact that
the caring professions suffer higher levels of psychological morbidity and depression than
other professions. The lifelong risk of depression in doctors is 10-20%. According to the American Psychiatric Association, suicide rate in American doctors is twice the rate in the general population and 200-300 doctors commit suicide per year. The sad truth is that many of these had been diagnosed with depression, alcohol or substance abuse problems but failed to seek treatment or help.
Although doctors are more likely to have a breakdown, they usually do so in ways that are
private and socially obedient as they don’t want to be seen to be compromised, dependent
or weak. The ethos of coping at all costs is learned early in our training. Our expectations to
remain strong whatever the circumstances, frequently exceeds what is required for a
humane and competent clinical practice.
The Office of National Statistics (UK) website shows the rate of registered suicides in the UK
in 2016 was 12/100,000 population. The specific rate for doctors is not stated but it is stated
that the rate of suicide in female health workers was 24% higher than the general
Physician burnout is a growing occupation hazard. The burden of caring for patients with
challenging chronic or incurable diseases can be draining and emotional; heavy workloads
and long working hours, striving to meet expectations, fear of getting it wrong, complaints
and litigation; unsupportive colleagues and unfavourable working environments can all
contribute to our emotional turbulence.
The problem is not just the prevalence of mental health issues in the profession but the
tendency to ignore or hide the problems. It is not just individuals with problems that
perpetuate the ethos but we have all at some time been guilty of collusion by minimising,
concealing, ignoring or denying the existence of problems in a colleague. Let us all remember that it is okay to feel depressed but it is not okay to hide it and not seek help. It is okay to talk about it and seeking help is not a sign of weakness. Prevention is better than cure!
Cultivate a good social network around you. Family, colleagues and friends can all be a great
support when things are tough. The problem you are struggling with may not seem such a
big deal when shared with someone you trust.
Have a life outside work. Doing things you find enjoyable, especially if it involves social interactions can be great at recharging your batteries. Make time for regular exercises and release those endorphins!
Remember, all work and no play makes Jack(ie) a sick doctor!
Dr. Theresa Oduro
Welfare Officer, GDDA-UK
This article was originally published in the 2018 GDDA-UK conference brochure, kindly supported by Indigo Homes