A pilot program at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital designed to improve junior doctors’ wellbeing is attracting national and international interest, as the medical profession looks to reduce levels of stress, burnout and depression among some of its most vulnerable members.
The early years of medicine are particularly challenging, in part due to the long hours and taxing training and exams. During a national survey by beyondblue in 2013, young doctors reported poor mental health and high levels of stress and burnout, with almost 28 per cent of doctors under 30 having had thoughts of suicide prior to the previous 12 months.
Bethan Richards, RPA’s former network director of physician training, said three basic physician trainees (BPTs) in NSW had taken their own lives in the months before the program was pitched in March. “That really gave us the impetus to take it front and centre,” Dr Richards said.
The n-first program teaches BPTs, or medical registrars, how to debrief, manage traumatic and emotionally challenging events and recognise signs of stress and burnout. It also provides personal and motivational training to make regular exercise, as well as good nutrition and sleep practices, part of their busy schedules.
Called BPTOK, it was developed by past and current BPTs, training directors, psychiatrists and mentors. Funded through the Sydney Local Health District’s innovation challenge, The Pitch, it is delivered in protected teaching time as a core element of training.
Dr Richards saw the impact heavy workloads and responsibilities were having on young doctors, with about 10 per cent of trainees referred externally for psychological help.
“In a way, it was [making] them sick,” she said. “As doctors we’re not very good at seeking help from others and we have an expectation on ourselves of perfection – of not making mistakes, not being sick. It’s harder to be there for patients who are in their own world of distress when doctors are not in the healthiest mindset.”
Dr Richards said the program would make the trainees better doctors and sent the message “that we value these skills as much as we value … the other life-saving skills we’re teaching. We’d love to see all this taught at medical school.”
Dr Louise Ward, a recent BPT who delivered the program pitch, said it reassured trainees “they’re not alone, there will be other people having difficulties”.
“It’s common not to talk about having problems, but this is part of the step towards changing the culture in medicine, to make it okay to admit that you might need help and to ask for help.”