Greater awareness of physician burnout and depression needed, experts say

An international conference co-hosted by the AMA aims to remove stigma and foster a healthier emotional climate for doctors.

By — Posted Oct. 21, 2010

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The medical community needs to be more aware of the risks of physician burnout and depression, according to physician health experts.

Only through awareness will the stigma attached to such issues be lifted, encouraging more physicians to seek help before their struggles impede their practices or personal lives, the experts said.

Doctors throughout the world gathered in Chicago on Oct. 3-5 to discuss physician health and its relationship to quality care and patient safety, and the need for peer support and workplace interventions for impaired physicians.

The International Conference on Physician Health is hosted every two years by the American Medical Association, the Canadian Medical Assn. and the British Medical Assn., with the goal of reducing stigma and promoting a healthier climate for physicians.

A eulogy delivered by a female physician after the suicide of her father, who also practiced medicine, sums up why many physicians have trouble, said Michael Myers, MD, clinical psychiatry professor, vice chair of medical education and director of training at the psychiatry and behavioral sciences department at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in New York.

"As doctors, we feel we are supposed to be perfect," he said, reading from the eulogy.

That feeling causes many physicians to suppress their problems and prevents them from seeking help, Dr. Myers said. Instead, they try to diagnose and treat themselves, which could lead to alcohol and drug addictions and suicide, he said.

"There's got to be a balance between dedication and hard work, as well as taking care of yourself and others," he said.

Physicians often can find emotional support and helpful information and guidance from colleagues and spouses. It's more difficult for physicians to find people able or willing to step in to lighten their workload or cover their practice, Dr. Jane Lemaire, clinical professor of medicine at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, told conference attendees.

Learning that others struggle with the same issues helps many physicians. "Having a support team can really make a big difference," she said.

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