SA's front-line doctors at risk of burnout, say their mental health has deteriorated

SA's front-line doctors are concerned about their mental and physical health, a new survey has found.
SA's front-line doctors are concerned about their mental and physical health, a new survey has found.
Image: Jasminko Ibrakovic/123RF

SA's front-line doctors say their mental health has deteriorated in recent weeks, prompting a medical defence body to warn about the risk of burnout.

As Covid-19 tightens its grip on the country, a survey conducted by the Medical Protection Society (MPS), which represents 32,000 health-care professionals in SA, has surveyed doctors' psychological wellbeing.

A total of 346 doctors took part in the survey, which found that a third of them felt their mental health was worse compared with two weeks ago.

MPS reported that 60% said they were concerned about the health of their families and friends, 54% were worried about finances and 42% about their own health.

The survey also found 40% were worried about the health of their patients.

MPS's Dr Volker Hitzeroth said: “Adrenaline will be carrying many health-care workers through this pandemic and help them to cope despite the exhaustion and tragedy they experience daily.

“It is when the crisis recedes and there is time to reflect that the accumulated stress and trauma may surface. This is the time health-care professionals will be most at risk and need support.

“The government and private health-care providers should be actively planning now for this time. A range of support will be needed. Some will experience grief or moral injury, some may have unresolved anger over issues such as personal protective equipment supply, or distress and fear of reprisal at being unable to treat patients with non Covid-19 conditions.

“Others may suffer with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and many are at risk of burnout set against a backdrop of an already burnt out workforce.”

Hitzeroth said possible regulatory or prosecutorial repercussions were an underlying threat faced by all who treat Covid-19 patients, compounding the mental strain of health-care professionals.

“Mental wellbeing is not just a challenge to be met by the government. Hospitals and professional societies have a part to play.

Many professional societies have stepped up with dedicated colleagues looking after the wellbeing of their members.

“If we don’t act now, many doctors will become burnt out and disillusioned or continue with chronic mental health conditions — both of which put the safety of themselves, their families 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 clinical backlog to deal with. The last thing we want is huge swathes of practitioners leaving the profession after Covid-19. This must be avoided. It is time to care for health-care professionals just as they are caring for us.”

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