COVID-19 Healthcare Mental Health

The healthcare system puts everything else before self-care… but why?


A new crisis is spreading globally in our relenting healthcare system with doctors and patients called the Pandemic Fatigue Burnout. After a year of vicarious trauma, doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers are struggling to cope and exercise self-care, and we are all suffering from compassion fatigue.

With more than half a year of lockdown in Melbourne and similar situations worldwide, people are burnt out from pandemic fatigue which is leading to many physical and mental health conditions. This is definitely more prevalent in doctors.

Current reality of pandemic fatigue burnout in doctors

My particular focus has always been on the wellbeing of doctors. The question of who is caring for the carers is top of mind for me. The truth is that doctors were burnt out way before COVID. The burnout rate of doctors pre-COVID was about 40% and the burnout rate of doctors post pandemic according to the data from the US is about 68%. According to research presented at the 2018 American Psychiatric Association Meeting, 400 physicians die by suicide each year in the US. This is double the rate of the general population. In fact, doctors have the highest suicide rate of any profession in the US – including combat veterans.

One thing the pandemic has done is expose the cracks in the healthcare systems around the world. From inadequate testing and personal protective equipment (PPE) to overcrowded emergency departments, frontline staff are putting their lives at risk to care for highly infectious patients. Regardless of the fact that the odds are stacked against them, medical professionals are responding to the crisis with characteristic selflessness, resilience and compassion. It strikes me as profoundly unfair, not to mention strategically unwise, for the people who are being relied on so much to be left to suffer in silence.

For many doctors, COVID-19 was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Being isolated physically from family and friends, and overwhelmed by the surge of sickness and death they face on a daily basis, means that depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and secondary trauma are reaching levels that have never been seen before.

I am most worried about the wellbeing of doctors across the state of Victoria who are currently working in the frontline. They are burnt out and need access to more mental health support, but they are very reluctant to seek help due to the stigma around it.

New global healthcare crisis coming to Australia

A recent Washington Post article reported that 30% of healthcare workers in the US were burnt out by the pandemic and they were considering leaving the profession. It is projected that by 2032, the US will have a global healthcare trend with a major shortage of doctors and nurses who have left the profession due to burnout.

I fear the same will happen to us in Australia. In 10 years or even shorter than that, we are not going to have enough healthcare workers to support Australia’s healthcare needs. That’s why, to achieve the goal, we need to prioritize finding and implementing a solution to the pandemic fatigue burnout that is so prevalent in Australian doctors. Self-care must be given priority.

Will our relenting healthcare system even prioritise our doctors’ wellbeing once Victoria is out of lockdown?

According to Burnett Institute, once Victoria comes out of lockdown on 26th October 2021, there will be an increase in patients from the pandemic, particularly the Intensive Care Units (ICU) and emergency departments across Victoria. This will perpetuate the pandemic fatigue, burnout and stress syndrome in the frontline health care workers. We need to acknowledge that frontline healthcare workers need more self-care and mental health support from our politicians, hospitals and medical associations. This needs to be a legislation and an act to be passed, like the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act in the US.

Medicine is a calling for most doctors – but is it worth dying for?

I don’t think so. The way I see it, we all have a role to play in stemming the tide of physician burnout and suicide. The time has come to reaffirm the humanity of doctors and acknowledge their value to society. Medical culture and the healthcare system both need to change – that’s the bottom line. Doctors must first acknowledge, and then heal, their pain and suffering with self-compassion and self-care. They have to do this for their own sake first and then for the sake of their patients and communities.


Original story from Third Sector Australia. Note: Content has been edited for style and length.

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Dr Olivia Ong, author of The Heart-Centeredness of Medicine, is a resilience leadership consultant, life and business coach for doctors, and established pain physician. She is a keynote speaker on physician burnout prevention and runs programs helping doctors transform their lives from burnout to brilliance.


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