Physician Health and Well-being

07 Annual Report
The Canadian Medical Foundation

Historically, physicians in Canada have been seen as invincible: strong, disciplined professionals who are not supposed to get sick, say no, make mistakes, catch a cold, or even stub a toe.

Physicians routinely put the needs of their patients ahead of their own needs. In fact, the notion of sacrifice and deferral are woven through the Hippocratic Oath and the Medical Code of Ethics.

"Physicians are care-givers, not care-receivers," explains Dr. Mamta Gautam. "This is just not a role we see ourselves in; and so we find it hard to reach out for help or to let others help us. As a consequence, health and well-being take a back seat to the need to serve patients."

Dr. Gautam is an expert advisor to the CMA Centre for Physician Health and Well-being, created in 2003 in response to growing concern for the well-being of Canadian physicians.

Dr. Todd Watkins heads the Centre. He reports that an earlier study commissioned by CMA showed that 47 per cent of Canadian physicians assessed were in a severe ·state of burnout. "Stress management, even within this population that is generally physically healthy, has in the past been very difficult because of a limited social network, few resources and significant stigma attached to admitting illness or being anything less than perfect, says Dr. Watkins. "Hospital settings are challenging too, because managers of medical teams don't always have the tools or the training to work with physicians who are going through difficult times."

Have there been positive advances? Yes, according to Dr. Watkins. In addition to the CMA's Centre, academic faculty wellness programs and provincial physician health programs now exist across the country to help physicians and their families deal with personal health issues. These programs have also come together to form the Canadian Physician Health Network to enhance the availability of programs and services for Canadian physicians. In addition, a generational phenomenon is occurring within the profession. Younger doctors, while equally committed, are being quite forthright in establishing clearer boundaries and barriers around their personal lives. They see that the sacrifices physicians have made in the past have been very severe, and are learning how to balance work and family, and avoid paying the heavy price of their colleagues and mentors.

Dr. Watkins, Dr. Gautam and the rest of the team believe that a number of things-increased understanding, broader resources, a reinvigorated sense of community and social networking, and even the presence of more students in the practice environment-will all work toward culture change, better lifestyles and improved healing. Dr. Watkins believes Canada is on track to be an international leader in physician health and well-being. A new survey, partially funded by the Canadian Medical Foundation, will be released in 2008, and will enhance our knowledge of the health needs of Canada's doctors, enabling us to expand the resources and services currently available. "I am excited about the role the Foundation can play in making a real difference to the health of Canada's physicians," adds Dr. Watkins.