Doctors hit by a mental health epidemic will quit their jobs if we don’t act fast

If we do nothing, I fear many more doctors will become burnt out and disillusioned or suffer in silence with chronic psychological injuries – both of which put the safety of themselves and their patients at risk

Pallavi Bradshaw
Tuesday 23 June 2020 12:23 BST
NHS waiting lists will increase as service opens, Matt Hancock says

Most of us will have had to confront a crisis in our lives, either at home or at work. Often it is adrenaline that carries us through. What follows it is a more worrying and long-term problem.

Adrenaline and determination will still be carrying many healthcare workers through this pandemic – the biggest health crisis most will see in their careers. It will be dragging them through the daily challenges, despite the exhaustion and tragedy they may be experiencing. When the crisis truly begins to fade and there is time to reflect, the accumulated stress and trauma will surface, and this is when doctors will be most at risk.

The government, NHS and private healthcare providers should be planning for this time now.

Many healthcare workers will be experiencing grief from losing patients, loved ones and colleagues, or suffering moral injury from having to stand back and the allow their non-Covid-19 patients to suffer due to depleted resources or staff. Some workers will have unresolved anger over issues such as lack of personal protective equipment and the injustices which have been highlighted by this virus’s victims. Others will be fearful of complaints and claims which may result from patients being unable to access appropriate and timely healthcare. In some cases, they may suffer with depression or even PTSD. Many remain at risk of burnout against a backdrop of an already burnt out workforce.

While the government and health leaders now look to address the backlog from disruption to health services, plans must also be made to ensure the wellbeing of doctors so they can continue to care for the nation. Resources must be made widely available to those who are struggling with grief, depression and burnout as well as specialist support for those suffering with moral injury and PTSD.

Alongside this, it is essential that appropriate measures are taken to ensure the system has capacity to allow those needing treatment or time to recuperate to do so without adding to staff shortages.

This is particularly important. Presenteeism is rife in medicine with doctors notoriously reluctant to take time off when they are sick. The same will happen here; doctors are unlikely to seek help if they are worrying about the extra burden placed upon colleagues or feel they will be viewed as weak.

Plans must also be backed by central government investment – this will ensure valued local initiatives such as counselling services are maintained and expanded. But it could also fund new initiatives – for example, steps could be taken towards every healthcare organisation having a dedicated person or “guardian” responsible for staff wellbeing.

Fast-tracked research into the impact of the pandemic on doctors’ mental wellbeing would also be invaluable for the profession, as well as aid planning and recovery for future crises.

If we do nothing, I fear many more doctors will become burnt out and disillusioned or suffer in silence with chronic psychological injuries – both of which put the safety of themselves and their patients at risk. Many others may sadly choose to leave the profession.

Even after the worst has passed, Covid-19 will continue to bring pressures and complications, compounded by a significant referral backlog to deal with.

The last thing we want is huge swathes of doctors leaving the profession after Covid-19. This must be avoided – it is time to care for doctors, just as they have cared for us.

Pallavi Bradshaw is medicolegal lead, risk prevention at the Medical Protection Society

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