Doctors need to walk the walk when it comes to heeding good health advice and there’s a doctor to give a helping hand.
Doctors are very good at talking the talk but not so good at walking the walk, particularly when it comes to their own health. I recall as a medical student in the 1970s many a consultant berating their patients about the hazards of smoking, then disappearing at tea time for a quiet smoke, themselves.
While smoking has improved since then, our behaviour in other areas has not – diet and exercise for instance. That is not to say we shouldn’t be enjoying life and seeking a balance between ‘what we should do’ and ‘what we like to do’. The problem is that often the unhealthy behaviour predominates and we never seem to have the time to pause, reflect and take action for our own health.
We know that doctors who treat themselves, generally, have a worse health status than doctors who don’t. The literature is full of tales of doctors who treated themselves or relied on ‘corridor’ consultations or informal ‘chats’ with their colleagues often resulting in disaster. Only about a third of doctors have a regular GP, compared with 90% of the general population.
Given that doctors are, by definition, experts in health, we could expect our health status to be better than the general population. Sadly, this is not the case. Our physical health has similar morbidity to the general population. Although better with smoking-related illness, we don’t fare so well with obesity, alcohol use and hypertension. In the area of mental health, the numbers are even worse.
In a 2013 study by Beyond Blue, about a third of Australian doctors reported being psychologically distressed, 10% had suicidal thoughts in the 12 months prior to the survey and 25% had had previous suicidal thoughts. These rates are twice that of the general population and in many instances doctors are treating themselves for these conditions.
So why do doctors, self-treat? The literature describes many reasons such as doctors thinking “It’s more convenient to treat myself”, “I am the best doctor I know”, “I don’t want anyone else to know about my problem”, “I don’t want to bother anyone”, and “I saw a doctor once (as a patient) and it was an unpleasant experience”.
The Doctor-Doctor Patient relationship can also be difficult for the treating doctor. Common concerns include “Should I prioritise doctors with my bookings?”, “What should I charge doctors (and their families)?”, “Should I change my consultation style for doctors?” and “Can the Doctor Patient help manage their own care?”. Often there is no right or wrong answer to these questions.
If you want to learn more about these issues, then I encourage you to attend one of the Doctors for Doctors workshops being run by the Doctors Health Advisory Service of WA (DHAS WA). The first workshop is on Saturday, May 6 at the Wollaston Conference Centre, 5 Wollaston Rd, Mt Claremont. All doctors who treat doctors and/or medical students are welcome to attend. Call Liz Connor on 9273 3097 for details.
ED: Dr David Oldham is Medical Director of the DHAS WA.