Helpline to counsel `suicidal' doctors

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The Independent Online

A 24-hour helpline is to be launched for doctors after a British Medical Association survey revealed that one in five had contemplated suicide and many were taking to drink or drugs.

The BMA chairman, Dr Sandy Macara, laid the blame for high levels of stress at the Government's door, linking its rise to "intolerable practice" within the National Health Service.

"Almost 90 per cent of people perceived that their levels of stress were greater than five years ago," he said. "It is no coincidence that we are about to celebrate the fifth anniversary of NHS reforms."

The one-year pilot telephone service, staffed by trained counsellors from the specialist company Care Assist, aims to provide doctors with "coping strategies" for dealing with high levels of stress in the work place, Sandra Ridley, manager of the counselling services, said.

The survey of more than 800 GPs and hospital doctors published in the BMA News Review magazine found seven out of ten doctors said they suffered from work-related stress. More than one-third increased their alcohol consumption to help them cope, and a few became drug abusers.

Nearly 90 per cent of doctors thought they faced greater stress than they did five years ago and the same proportion felt patients had been encouraged to make unreasonable demands on them. More than 20 per cent said stress caused them to think of committing suicide.

But the "continued prevalence of a macho medical culture" meant few - only 15 per cent - were likely to seek professional help, preferring to talk to family, colleagues or friends. Just 17 per cent said they had taken time off work.

One anonymous West Country family doctor said: "Many GPs I know are stressed to the point where their health and their ability to work safely are suffering. If we judged ourselves as we judge our patients, many of us would be off sick."

Another from Wales said: "One of my partners recently suffered burn-out, which led to alcohol abuse and attempted suicide. This caused great stress and guilt for the rest of us."

Dr Macara said he was "shattered" by the results of the BMA survey. He said: "We have the intolerable practice of doctors being told which patients to give priority to on the basis of where the money is.

"Added to that ... the Government has incited higher expectations in patients of the service they should receive in an environment which doesn't have the resources to provide those standards of patient care.

"It doesn't guarantee higher standards, but it is the best guarantee of demoralising and alienating those who are doing their best in difficult circumstances."

Last year at the BMA Annual Representatives Meeting in Harrogate, members called on the Government to set up such a helpline and authorised the BMA to launch a pilot scheme if the Government did not act.

The secretary of the association, Dr Mac Armstrong, said: "If I were the managing director of a company and it was revealed that my key personnel were suffering from this degree of stress, I would be calling for the head of personnel on a plate."