Doctors need help to cope with their own illnesses

The widespread belief among doctors that they should be 'invincible' and are failures if they become ill must be changed, a study has said.

Stress: many doctors feel they are failures if they fall ill
Stress: many doctors feel they are failures if they fall ill

A study by BMJ Open argued that the curriculum for all medical students should include personal and colleague health, especially mental health.

'Shame! Self-stigmatisation as an obstacle to sick doctors returning to work' was based on interviews with 19 doctors who had been away from work for over six months with drug, alcohol, physical or mental health problems. The majority, although not all, had had some dealings with the GMC.

The study found that among doctors, self-stigmatising views – whereby people adopt and internalise external social stigma and experience loss of self-esteem and self-efficacy - represented a major obstacle to returning to work.

Doctors have rates of mental illness, drug and alcohol misuse and suicide at least as high, if not higher, than the general population, the study said.

However it found that many doctors struggled to deal with their own illnesses because they had ‘internalised the view of themselves as invincible’.

This meant that they viewed themselves as failures and could not conceive that anyone else might view their illness differently.

Doctors taking part in the study also reported a lack of support from colleagues, despite working in a caring profession.

The study said: ‘The participants in our study described having experienced negative interactions with their families and colleagues during their illness, as well as seemed to anticipate this as part of any return to work process.’

One participant said: 'I mean we’re meant to be caring people but we don’t, don’t seem to care about each other at all in my experience.’

In order for doctors’ opinions of their own illnesses as well as the illnesses of other doctors to improve, a culture change is needed in medical schools, the study said.

The change must ‘allow doctors to recognise their vulnerabilities so they can more easily generate strategies to manage if they become unwell’.

‘Further, aspects of personal and colleague health, especially mental health, should be part of the curriculum for all medical students. Doctors must learn to provide themselves and their colleagues with the same level of excellent care that they provide for their patients,’ the study said.

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