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However, it is precisely this proximity that can often lead to doctors and other healthcare professionals delaying addressing their own health needs. The idea that their confidential health issues will become known among colleagues — however unlikely this may be — is a barrier to early presentation. This fear and reluctance are compounded when it involves very sensitive health issues involving mental health or addiction.
There is a complicated psychology at play too. Doctors and other healthcare professionals may struggle to identify as ‘patients’ when their daily professional lives involve helping others back to health. Such factors make initiatives like the Practitioner Health Matters Programme (PHMP) — which was launched in autumn 2015 — so important. Its Medical Director, GP Dr Ide Delargy, deserves huge credit for her years of groundwork in making this happen.
The PHMP has been developed along the lines of best practice models, such as the NHS Practitioner Health Programme. It is an independent and confidential service that provides support and appropriate medical care for practitioners in Ireland who may be going through a difficult time with stress, mental health difficulties or who may have an alcohol or drug misuse problem.
According to the PHMP’s first report, released this week, there are 47 practitioner patients — mainly doctors — registered with the programme from across the healthcare professions. The report states that over half of all practitioner patients registered on the programme have continued working in their professions, and with the support provided by the PHMP, did not require to take time off work.
The fact that the PHMP has provided an avenue through which practitioners can address their health needs, while continuing to practise in their fields, is hugely encouraging.
Based on international statistics, however, there remains a “significant cohort of practitioners” who may be experiencing difficulties but who have yet to seek advice and support. According to the report, estimates would indicate that between 12-to-15 per cent of practitioners may experience problems with mental health or substance misuse issues. “Current prevalence rates are not available in Ireland but based on the estimates from other jurisdictions, we would anticipate that in excess of 2,000 practitioners may require help on an annual basis.”
This echoes remarks made previously to the Medical Independent (MI) by Medical Council Health Committee Chair, GP Dr Rita Doyle, on the low number of doctors engaged with the Health Committee. In December 2015, the Committee was supporting 41 doctors, most commonly for addiction and mental health reasons. Yet there are around 20,000 registered doctors.
The first report of the PHMP notes that, in 2017, the programme aims to explore options for a more secure funding basis and engage in an awareness-raising campaign.
The HSE has lent some financial support to the PHMP. It would be appropriate that this should grow and continue over the coming years, as should support from other employers of doctors and other health professionals.
It is encouraging to note that the HSE, as outlined in this edition, is working on a doctors’ health strategy.
Hopefully, all of the stakeholders in doctors’ health will continue to work together and ensure that more doctors in difficulty feel they can reach out for help at an early stage. This is imperative for the health and wellbeing of healthcare professionals on the front line and the patients they attend to.