Troubled sleep, change in mood, intrusive memories, feelings of isolation, excessive worry, changed appetite, difficulty in enjoying what you normally enjoy. Does any of this sound familiar? Anxiety, depression and PTSD are a more common occurrence in medics than you think.
When you embark on your career of medicine it’s difficult to picture how it will be. There can be glamorous ideas of saving lives, rushing around the hospital in packs of smart doctors, and really making a difference. What you may not envision is the hard days, the paper work, night shifts, overtime and emotional distress.
The thing that I was especially unprepared for was dealing with negative patient outcomes. When you’re a student you believe that every person can be saved, and that hospitals will fix everyone that walks through their doors. What you don’t realise is that this isn’t always the case.
Dealing with negative outcomes
Sometimes there is no cure. People can go suddenly or slowly. More distressingly there are times when patients have a harmful outcome due to medical negligence or error. Usually due to an overwhelmed public health system these errors can leave doctors traumatised for a long time after the fact.
Nearly 80% of doctors have experienced a distressing patient event in the last year, and many go on to suffer from depression, anxiety, and PTSD (1).
In the middle of the work day you’re not always aware or able to process these events. Sometimes during a busy set of shifts you may not really understand how you feel until you’re on annual leave or a day off.
Personally, I had no idea how to face adverse patient outcomes because I had zero previous knowledge. Mixed with long hours, navigating the new role of internship and trying to gear up for your next transition it can be really hard to care for yourself in these situations.
What can help – self care
Caring for yourself is key. Both physically and emotionally. Care for your basic physical needs: hydration, well-fed, sleeping well, exercise, vitamin D. Then tend to your basic emotional needs: love, hope, meaning, and control.
If you’re meeting these needs you can better deal with difficult situations, and have stores to energise yourself with.
Top tips from other doctors on how to maintain your health and wellbeing
Following information is sourced from Drs4Drs.
- Maintain good lifestyle habits (easier said than done when working but remember that you can’t afford NOT to do this. Click link for tips on ways to do this)
– Avoid smoking
– Optimise your nutrition
– Limit alcohol intake
– Physical activity
– Sleep for 7 hours each night/day
- Annual GP check up
– Find a good GP
– Do age appropriate screening
- Supportive professionals for good advice
– Personal trainers
– Relationship counsellors
…whatever you need help with
- Fulfil non-medical roles in life
– Don’t let med take over, it will if you let it
- Diverse network of personal supports
- Meet your physical needs daily
– sleep, water, food, exercise, sunlight, quiet & creative time
- Meet your existential needs everyday (if you can!)
– Love, hope, meaning and control
- Spend your working time doing what you truly enjoy
– Very difficult for junior doctors, as you tend to just get by and get the job done
– Work towards achieving that varied work week that is sustainable for you
- Re-engage with non-medical friends and extra-curricular interests
– Non-med friends can ground you (my friends are almost all outside of medicine and they really helped me through)
– Rediscover your outside interests
- Develop ways to reduce stress during the day
– ‘Fat Fridays’ – ordering a meal every Friday for the junior doctors to share
It’s essential to actively manage your health. I believe starting early, as a medical student can best prepare you for working as a doctor.
It can also help sustain you through medical school, that has challenges of its own.
Spread awareness, know you’re not alone, that hitting bumps in the road is expected, and learn ways to strengthen your resilience and wellbeing.
Look into your local resources, for those in Australia click this link for 24/7 hotlines you can call. Feel free to send me a message, know that you’re not the first and only one that has had difficulties during medicine.
(1) Paturel, Amy. “When physicians are traumatized.” AAMC, 13 August 2019.