Thursday 24 May 2018

Family doctor reveals emotional toll of losing six patients to suicide in the past five years

Call for doctors to get trauma counselling as a third suffer burnout

Dr Illona Duffy. Picture by Shane O'Neill
Dr Illona Duffy. Picture by Shane O'Neill
Dr Blanaid Hayes Picture by Shane O'Neill
Dr Paddy Hillery
Eilish O'Regan

Eilish O'Regan

A family doctor has revealed the personal, emotional toll of losing six patients to suicide in the past five years.

Dr Illona Duffy, a GP in Co Monaghan, said she had to pronounce three of these patients dead.

"I had personal dealings with all of them," Dr Duffy told the annual conference of the Irish Medical Organisation in Killarney, Co Kerry.

She is now calling for doctors to be offered debriefing after trauma, saying they can be left out of counselling after being involved in tragedy.

Dr Duffy was commenting after two doctors had described the extent of stress among medics and said a survey showed one in three hospital doctors in Ireland was suffering burnout.

Dr Blanaid Hayes, an occupational physician in Beaumont Hospital, said a national survey outlined how burnout could have an impact on patient care.

Emergency consultants who are in the frontline in caring for patients on trolleys had the highest level of burnout.

Risk factors include being female, young, working long hours and having low levels of job satisfaction.

"Surgeons who took part in the survey were working 70 hours a week," she told the session on the health and welfare of doctors.

The findings showing one-third of hospital doctors in Ireland suffer burnout is high by international standards.

A similar study in the Netherlands found that their rate was one-in-five.

Dr Ide Delargy, who is involved in the Practitioner Health Matters Programme - a free service for doctors who have health problems - said some doctors who were functioning might have chaotic lives behind the scenes.

She spoke about one doctor, who has an alcohol addiction problem and social workers involved in the care of the family's children,

She said doctors could fall into drug abuse because of "easy access to pharmaceuticals" which is a serious risk.

The confidential and key service had supported a number of doctors, including a surgeon who was self-prescribing opiates, Dr Delargy added.

The surgeon had complex and underlying issues and was suffering unresolved grief after the death of his mother three years previously.

Dr Delargy said the doctor, who stood down from practice for a time, underwent therapy, including detox.

"A tipping point can be a patient complaint about a doctor to the Medical Council," she said.

GPs who worked in isolation were at risk, she said.

Doctors overcame a lot of hurdles, but this resilience could be tested due to workplace issues, conflict and bullying, Dr Delargy explained.

They also faced high patient expectations and could be affected by moving to another job.

The support organisation's annual report to be published shortly will show that 58pc of the doctors helped over the course of a year had a mental health problem.

Some 29pc suffered from substance abuse and 13pc had mental health and substance abuse issues.

"Many doctors don't themselves have a GP," said Dr Delargy. However, once they are helped and supported, the success rate tends to be very good, with around 80pc going back to work. In most cases the doctors refer themselves to the programme.

The risks of doctors working in a "toxic environment" was highlighted, and they were urged to be vigilant for colleagues under stress.

Irish Independent

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