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Teaching doctors how to live

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From the day I sat my first interview for medicine, there was a decision to be made about what place medicine would take in my life. The interviewer asked how I felt about personal sacrifice in medicine, given that the degree was difficult and time consuming, and that it would take away time I could have spent with friends, parents and siblings. 

There seem to me to be two types of answers that an applicant could give. The first, that they’re committed to sacrificing whatever is necessary in order to be a doctor. The second, that they’re committed to doing whatever is necessary to strike a successful balance between medicine and the other parts of their life.

As is the case with so many who’ve entered the medical profession before me, I’m driven by a commitment to providing the best possible patient care.

I knew from the outset that commitment would mean long hours, a long training pathway and moving a long way from home, and those remain sacrifices well worth making in order to become a better doctor. 

Unfortunately, I’ve seen this same commitment to medicine drive medical students and doctors alike into the ground. The 2013 beyondblue study of doctors and medical students, now well known to many of us, highlighted the impact of stressful and demanding work on a dedicated profession. One in 10 doctors reported having had suicidal thoughts in the 12 months prior to the study; for medical students, that number was one in five. 

I have the great privilege this year of hearing the views of medical students all around the country. I’ve frequently heard that even during a medical degree, there are rotations where students find balancing hospital hours with time to study, exercise, eat a reasonable diet and get a serviceable amount of sleep a challenge. That balance will only get more difficult as they progress through medical training. As students develop their habits around work and wellbeing, they look to interns, registrars and consultants to set an example of what being a good doctor looks like.

Doctors have a great deal of influence in teaching those junior to them, and those lessons aren’t limited to anatomy and physical examination.

When doctors promote doctors’ wellbeing as important, that shapes the way wellbeing is seen in that team all the way down to the student. Similarly, doctors who make sure their teams are aware of initiatives such as the Doctors’ Health Advisory Service, shape the ability of their juniors to seek help when it’s needed.

Sitting in that first medical interview, I said I’d do whatever it takes to become a good doctor. Today, I know that no small part of ‘whatever it takes’ is prioritising personal wellbeing. I have some outstanding doctors to thank for that understanding; watching the example they set shapes the way I live and work.

The statistics tell us just how high the stakes are in making doctors’ wellbeing a priority.

You too will set an example that influences the lives and livelihood of those around you; give thought to the lessons you want to teach.

Email: elise.buisson@amsa.org.au 

Twitter: @elisebuisson