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Physician burnout is a problem that can’t be ignored

By Paul Mulholland - 27th May 2022


The psychological toll Covid-19 has taken on the medical profession has been commented upon from the beginning of the pandemic. Over two years later, there is more data emerging on the severity of this burden. 

According to the 2021 annual report of the Practitioner Health Matters Programme (PHMP), there was a 36 per cent increase in the number of new presentations to the service by doctors, dentists, and pharmacists. 

The service, which was launched in 2015, provides confidential support to doctors, dentists, and pharmacists who may be experiencing stress, burnout, mental health, or substance use issues. 

There were 106 new presentations to the PHMP in 2021, an increase of more than one-third compared to new presentations recorded in 2020. 

The predominant issues included anxiety, depression, substance use issues, and burnout, with others also citing stress, being overwhelmed, sleep problems, and moral distress. 

According to the PHMP, healthcare professionals rarely present with a single issue, but rather a wide range of conditions and concerns. 

Of those newly presenting in 2021, the majority were doctors (83 per cent), followed by pharmacists (10 per cent), dentists (4 per cent), and students (3 per cent). Three out of four new presentations were aged between 26-49 years, and 57 per cent were female. 

“This year we recorded the biggest increase in new presentations since the PHMP service began, which can be attributed in part to the continued impact of Covid-19 on our healthcare system,” according to Dr Íde Delargy, Medical Director of the PHMP. 

“As a society, we stood behind our healthcare professionals, many of whom worked on the frontline for much of the pandemic. But medicine is a challenging career, and whether stress caused by the uncertainty of the pandemic or the mental and physical strain of a relentless workload, the lasting legacy of Covid-19 will be felt by our doctors, dentists, and pharmacists for a considerable time to come.” 

On a positive note, Dr Delargy said that with the right support and intervention, there can be good outcomes. 

Of those treated, 92 per cent have continued working when sufficiently recovered. This can only happen when they have accessed the necessary time, care, and support to address what often are very complex needs. 

There are signs that the continued pressure on medical professionals is being acknowledged by health management. 

The Medical Independent recently reported how Saolta University Health Care Group’s executive council discussed concerns regarding the “mental health of the workforce in light of the additional demands that have been placed on staff since March 2020”. 

“It was felt that steps must be taken urgently to improve the mental health and wellbeing of staff in order to protect and retain staff,” according to minutes of a meeting in February. 

The issue, of course, does not just apply to Saolta, but to the entire health service. Chronic staffing shortages have also contributed to the pressure on those at the frontline, and any solution needs to address recruitment. 

The problem of burnout is real and cannot be ignored.

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