Conference a success on many levels

Mamta Gautam, MD

Doctors' Health Matters | Finding the Balance: A report from the 2008 International Conference on Physician Health

17-19 November 2008, BMA House, London, UK

I recall the early 1990s, when a handful of us would gather to talk about physician health. I could never have imagined it becoming such a key area of interest, for so many people, organizations and health care systems, both nationally and globally.

Held for the first time outside North America, the conference's international aspect is what makes it truly remarkable. While many colleagues from Canada, the United States, Norway, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, Spain and the United Kingdom have consistently participated, the London location enabled many of them to bring along more of their colleagues and allowed for a new presence from other European countries, such as France, Belgium, Finland, Serbia, Ireland and the Netherlands. Some delegates flew all the way from Israel, Japan and Brazil.

The CMA's Dr. Todd Watkins spoke eloquently, reminding us all that "this area is too important for competition" and urging that "this is the time to pull together in a united effort." This set the stage for 3 days fUll of new shared information, collegiality and collaboration. The conference showcased progress in many areas; there is greater appreciation that doctors' health affects their medical practices and that efforts to improve physician health must be continued.

A special November 2008 issue of the British Medical Journal, "Finding a balance: doctors' health and work" (see story page 6) highlighted the notably increased research in this area. Although early anecdotal evidence helped create awareness and understanding of crucial physician health matters, such powerful research results are crucial to further define the issues scientifically and support the creation and maintenance of programs to address them.

Data from the 2008 Canadian Physician Health Survey were presented, showing that Canadian doctors are relatively healthy. These data may demonstrate some positive results of our work to date in revealing an early trend toward better health and resilience. A study of Norwegian doctors attending an educational program showed a decrease in burnour after the counseling intervention.

There was an enthusiastic buzz at the conference.Attendees were excited to be there, stimulated by new ideas, programs and interventions. Nowhere was this more apparent than at the launch of the International Alliance for Physician Health (IAPH). We expected perhaps 5 or 10 colleagues to come to the meeting at the end of a full day and were thrilled to have almost 100 people from around the world attend (standing room only!) - all interested in creating such an alliance and eager to discuss how it could work and define the next steps.

We look forward to the work of this alliance. Although the causes of stress that negatively affect physician health may vary depending on the country, the reality of the impact is the same. The IAPH will serve as the umbrella organization that unites, supports and promotes experts in the area of physician health and their networks to work together to maximize their contributions, share resources and leverage ideas in an ongoing process to advocate for doctors' well-being.

This field has evolved over the past 40 years, from the early 1960s, when energy was devoted primarily to treating physician with addictions, to the treatment of mental health problems, then physical and sexual difficulties and, more recently, difficult behaviour. The international conference on physician health was launched over 20 years ago by the American Medical Association in conjunction with the CMA. It has brought together interested experts on a biennial basis and encouraged many countries to share information and create policies and programs to address physician health. Continued collaborative efforts will yield healthier doctors and healthier populations globally. Look for details on the 2010 conference to be held in the United States.

Dr. Gautam is chair of the expert advisory group to the CMA Centre on Physician Health and Well-being.