Preliminary data from a national survey of doctors in Canada has revealed a concerning trend about the health of those who take care of Canadians.
A survey of 4,000 physicians and medical learners, also known as residents, done by the Canadian Medical Association in November 2021 showed 53 per cent have experienced “high levels” of burnout, compared to only 30 per cent four years before.
And nearly half — or 46 per cent — of doctors are considering reducing their work in clinics in the next two years.
CMA president-elect Dr. Alika Lafontaine, an anesthesiologist in Grande Prairie, Alta., said the recent survey results showed burnout in the profession is an already existing problem made worse by the pandemic.
And like in other professions, he said workplaces are a major contributing factor to doctor burnout.
“As a physician, there’s obviously acute situations that happen on a regular basis that demand a lot of you physically, mentally and emotionally. That eventually takes a toll. I think the culture of medicine is changing where people are saying out loud: ‘Really, what’s happening when it comes to burnout?’” he said.
“I know my own impact when it comes to the pandemic as an anesthesiologist was, at the very beginning, you didn’t know what was going on. You knew that you were high risk. You worried how that would impact your family and the other people that you cared about, but you still showed up for work because that’s what you did.
“With each subsequent wave, it chipped away at our confidence within the system that it would take care of us and that we’d be able to provide care with our best selves, versus this run down, shell of who you become if you work full time and you have these acute situations come frequently.”
Lafontaine said patients have delayed seeking medical help because of the ongoing pandemic. They’re coming in with worse health and are more impatient with the doctors, he said, which has weighed on physician well-being.
Since the start of the pandemic, 59 per cent of physicians said their mental health has taken a turn for the worse since the start of the pandemic. Increased workload and poor work-life integration was attributed by 57 per cent of respondents to the online survey, and 55 per cent said rapidly-changing policies and processes contributed to their worsened mental health.
Low levels of social well-being were reported in 47 per cent of respondents, up from 29 per cent in 2017. The CMA noted emotional and psychological well-being also suffered compared to pre-pandemic levels.
“I think there’s a great opportunity for health systems to recognize that right now we’re stuck in this interim period where you do have a fixed supply (of physicians) to a great degree. Anything that you do will probably have impacts years down the line,” Lafontaine said.
“So how do you treat your provider pool as good as possible? How do you decrease the friction that happens day-to-day as far as how they work? How do you make sure that those who are interested in working – maybe more or increased hours relative to other people – easily can move within the country?”
Lafontaine also urges provincial and territorial governments – who have jurisdiction over healthcare — to create a national health human resource plan, to help address “abnormal normals” in accessing the health-care system that existed pre-pandemic.
“We have this expanding demand within the health-care system for reasons that we predicted years ago: the fact that our society is aging, the contraction in the amount of numbers that we have of physicians and nurses and that kind of long-term health-care planning that is now meeting this escalating demand where mid-pandemic we had a halting of surgeries and other types of access to care,” he said.
“And I don’t think that we’ll be able to meet the demand that’s here and that’s going to just continue to rise unless we address the burnout that exists within physicians and other providers across the country.”
The 2017 survey used the Mental Health Continuum Short Form to measure mental health using 14 items that correspond to social, emotional and psychological well-being.
A full report on the survey’s findings is expected later this year.
METHODOLOGY: The CMA National Physician Health Survey was conducted in the fall of 2021. The survey was open for five weeks and received more than 4,000 responses from Canadian physicians and medical learners. A fulsome report will be published later this year.