Stress taking toll among doctors

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A stress counselling service set up by the British Medical Association last year has recently taken its 5,000th call, revealing an alarming level of psychological ill health among Britain's doctors.

In the first few months of the service, which began in March last year, just over half the calls were being made by men, but most recent monthly figures show that almost 65 per cent of calls were from women doctors, and totals for the 17-month period show that 58 per cent of callers were female.

Almost half the calls were linked to anxiety, stress and depression. Twelve callers said that they had attempted suicide and almost 50 said they had threatened to. Employment problems were the cause of almost a quarter of the calls, with workload, job dissatisfaction and relationships with colleagues and superiors given as the most common reasons. The other main reason was relationship problems.

Dr Mark Porter, a specialist registrar in anaesthetics and chairman of the BMA's steering group overseeing the service, said pressure to provide the service for its members had been growing for the past few years, and the level of stress revealed confirmed the BMA's worst fears.

"Five thousand calls in 17 months are a sad reflection of the strains under which doctors are working," said Dr Porter. "The steady increase in workload in the NHS has taken its toll on doctors, who have no occupational health service to protect them. These figures show that we have a major problem on our hands."

As Europe's biggest employer, with just under a million workers, the NHS is peculiar among large organisations in not having its own occupational health service. The BMA has discussed the issue with the Department of Health, but the DoH has so far declined to acknowledge the problem or provide funding for a service.

The BMA employed an independent counselling service, CareAssist, based in Hinckley, Leicestershire, costing pounds 300,000 a year. After the trial period, the service has been extended for a further three years.