Fear for our doctors

New research has shown that Australian doctors may be in a much riskier position than we realise. A study, conducted on behalf of depression and mental health group beyondblue, included over 14,000 doctors and medical students. It found that more than 40 per cent of medical students and more than 25 per cent of doctors, were likely to be suffering from a psychiatric disorder.

The study also found that one-in-five medical students and one-in-10 doctors had been so depressed they had considered suicide in the past year. This only occurs in approximately one-in-45 people in the wider community.

Young doctors, female doctors and those trained overseas were found to be most at risk. Of the specialists, oncologists (doctors who specialise in cancer) reported suffering the highest rate of distress, with more than 30 per cent likely to be suffering from a minor psychiatric disorder. Anaesthetists, surgeons and emergency doctors were the most likely to abuse alcohol to help with their stress or depression.

Of these same respondents, 40 per cent felt that many doctors think less of doctors who have experienced depression or anxiety, suggesting that there is still a lot of perceived stigma about mental illness in the medical field.

A second, equally distressing study of 180 female medical practitioners from across Australia’s states and territories, has found that more than 50 per cent of female practitioners have been sexually harassed by a client.

The research revealed that approximately one-third of doctors surveyed had been inappropriately grabbed or touched during a consultation, while the prevalence of requests for improper examinations, exposure of body parts and sexually charged remarks was also high.

Nearly two-thirds of the doctors who reported sexual harassment in the survey also said they had made changes to their own lives or to their consulting style as a result of the harassment. Dr Lorraine Baker said it was disturbing that these women had to change their working hours as a result of patient behaviour. “They are being disadvantaged in terms of earning an income and are making themselves less available in the healthcare system,” she explained.

Fewer than seven per cent of the survey respondents said they had received training which covered sexual harassment by patients.

 Dr Baker also spoke about the dangers of working in smaller medical centres, as the small budgets make providing security difficult. “There’s no chaperone in a doctor’s office, so staff are isolated if inappropriate behaviour occurs.”

Read more about the mental health study at the Sydney Morning Herald.

Read more about the sexual harassment study at the DailyLife.

Opinion: Time to overhaul the system

Unless we want to radically change our stance on patient confidentiality in the foreseeable future, doctors are going to continue to forced to work in a risky, isolated environment.

Those at highest risk are not the highly paid specialists who can afford their own offices, complete with security setup. It is the hardworking GPs who work long hours dealing with hundreds of people like you and me every single week. These doctors are paid to do nothing more than help others, and yet many women in this profession have been so affected by sexual harassment that they’ve reshuffled their lives simply to feel safer. To me the worst part is that the harassment is coming from the people they are trying to help. Unless such behaviour is prompted by mental illness, where the patient genuinely has no control over his or her actions, I believe that those who sexually harass doctors should no longer be eligible for treatment, or should be moved to the end of the list.

Doctors struggling with mental illness is perhaps easier to understand than patients abusing their medical practitioners, however, I was horrified to hear that the rates of contemplated suicide were so high. Medical students are nine times more likely to contemplate suicide than the general population. Is this just because doctors are asked to perform a difficult job? They spend all day dealing with sick, unhappy people, and rarely get a chance to see those patients recover, as many do so at home. How many of you have gone back to thank your doctor after he or she provided a cure to your ailment?

I personally think such high rates of unhappiness point to a deeper issue within the medical profession. It is only the cream of the academic crop who are eligible to undertake medical training at university. These incredibly smart young adults are chosen based on a score which (in theory) reflects their intellect. But one of the greatest parts of being a doctor, especially a GP, is interacting with other human beings. Those who wish to become doctors are not required to pass an emotional intelligence test. They are not screened on their bedside manner and nobody asks if they realise that compassion and empathy are going to be as important as intelligence once they get into the field.

While this ability to connect is not a problem for many doctors, for many more it is hard work. I do wonder if the way we pick our doctors isn’t creating a generation of medical professionals who are unsuited to, and secretly unhappy with, their work.

Do these studies worry you? Do you think those who sexually harass doctors should automatically lose their right to be treated? And should young would-be doctors be chosen on more than just intelligence?