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Dedicated service major advance in doctor health

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The AMA is on target to establish a national network of dedicated doctor health services by the end of 2016, Vice President Dr Stephen Parnis has revealed.

In a major speech to the biennial Australasian Doctors’ Health Conference, Dr Parnis said the establishment of the network was a “very significant and positive initiative” that would boost the level of support to the profession.

Focus on the health of doctors, particularly their mental wellbeing, has intensified in recent years amid mounting concerns around very long and disruptive work hours, substance abuse, and workplace bullying and harassment.

The issue of workplace bullying and harassment has come in for particular attention in recent months after vascular surgeon Dr Gabrielle McMullin complained that female trainees were being pressured for sex by senior surgeons.

A survey of 3500 people subsequently conducted by the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons found about half of surgeons, trainees and international graduates had suffered some form of abuse. In all, around 60 per cent of women reported they had been bullied and around 30 per cent said they had been sexually harassed.

Dr Parnis told the Conference that he had personal experience of the many serious stressors doctors face during their working life, and the growing willingness to acknowledge and address them was a welcome development.

“I have been an advanced trainee in surgery, and I have had personal experience of some of the issues uncovered this year,” the Vice President said.

“I have sought the advice and care of medical colleagues when I have found the pressures of my career overwhelming [and] I have grieved for friends and colleagues who have harmed themselves or taken their own life.”

Dr Parnis told the Conference that, rather than indulging in a culture of finger-pointing and blame, the medical profession needed to promote good health and health lifestyles for its members.

He said the establishment of a national network of dedicated doctor health services was an important part of this process.

The Medical Board of Australia is providing the AMA $2 million a year, indexed to inflation, to establish and oversee a nationally consistent suite of health, advice and referral services for doctors and medical students available in all states and territories.

To deliver this, the AMA has created Doctors’ Health Services Pty Ltd, a wholly-owned subsidiary, to co-ordinate the delivery of services that are at arm’s length from the Medical Board.

An Expert Advisory Council, chaired by Dr Kym Jenkins of the Victorian Doctors’ Health Program and including representatives of existing health services, medical students and doctors in training, will help guide its development and operations.

Dr Parnis said the development of the national service was “progressing well, and the programs are on target to be operational by the end of next year”.

“We will all end up being a patient at times during our career, and the challenge is to practise what we preach to our own patients,” the Vice President said. “We need to be honest, to be open to uncomfortable advice from our doctors, and to recognise our own limitations.”

He said the development of the national doctor health service was “a very significant and positive initiative” that would boost the support available to doctors.

“To care for one’s colleagues is not an easy thing, because it entails significant risk,” Dr Parnis said, “but there are real rewards and satisfaction for those who do.”

Adrian Rollins