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03 Nov 2015

By Dr Kym Jenkins, Conference convenor and Medical Director, Victorian Doctors’ Health Program

Doctors’ health, and the health of the medical profession more generally, has never been more in the news.

Through both the general media, and specialised medical publications, we have been hearing all too frequently of toxic workplaces, bullying and harassment. Stories of individual doctors who have “stuffed up”, or who are struggling, seem to make good headlines.

The Australasian Doctors’ Health Conference 2015 (adhc2015), held 22 -24 October, with its theme of “Pathways and Progress”, sought to address and redress these issues.

The conference focussed on extending the debate beyond what is wrong with our profession and just delineating the health issues we face, to a demonstration of what can be done to improve things and an examination of how individuals and organisations have overcome adversity to improve health outcomes.

The Australasian Doctors’ Health Conference is biennial event, and is an initiative of the Australasian Doctors’ Health Network. This year, the Victorian Doctors’ Health Program was proud to host the conference, and I was privileged to be its convenor.

The selection of invited speakers reflected both the breadth and depth of issues regarding wellbeing currently facing the medical profession.

Associate Professor Jan Mckenzie, a consultant psychiatrist and Associate Dean at the University of Otago, gave a moving description of how the Christchurch earthquake affected the lives of students, teachers and administrators at the University of Otago medical school.

Somehow, in the midst of the devastation, and despite the lack of electricity, a functioning IT system or functional buildings, the teaching continued. Although Jan and her colleagues live in homes that still await rebuilding, they not only support their students but have managed to produce a study with case-controlled data on the educational outcomes for Christchurch students, which has helped identify factors that have led to better outcomes.

Professor Carmelle Pesiah, Professor at the University of New South Wales, provided an entertaining (and, for some, shocking) insight into doctor aging. Professor Pesiah delivered some very strong messages and salutary warnings for us all as we get older. She emphasised that there is not just one formula for successfully aging and negotiating the approach to retirement. Aging with a little disgrace may increasingly be the norm.

Dr Hilton Koppe, a general practitioner and medical educator from Lennox Head explored what makes a career in medicine fulfilling. Dr Koppe was an innovative and engaging teacher, and his presentation encouraged people to challenge their perceptions.

On day two of the Conference, Sydney-based psychiatrist and addiction specialist Associate Professor Stephen Jurd spoke on the Doctors Recovery Movement. In a very inspirational presentation, Professor Jurd disavowed those present of any doubt that addiction is an illness. He highlighted the challenges for doctors overcoming addictions, demonstrated the power of recovery and is himself living embodiment of how much our profession will lose if we do not support for medical professionals in their recovery.  

The system of mandatory reporting of impairment in doctors was the focus of a presentation from public health physician and health lawyer Dr Marie Bismark, who informed her presentation with data she has obtained from the Australian Health Practitioners Regulation Agency.

The program of free papers, seminars and workshops throughout the two days likewise stimulated much debate, discussion and sharing of initiatives to make ourselves and our workplaces healthier.

The academic program concluded with a “Hypothetical” in which former Alfred Hospital General Counsel Bill O’Shea quizzed and challenged a team of experts about the multiple issues raised in a (not so) hypothetical case of a doctor found using propofol in the workplace.

The need to consider and look of after the individual doctor was apparent, as were the effects on the doctor’s colleagues and the workplace, and the issues of mandatory reporting.

The hypothetical demonstrated the need to take a systems view when a doctor is impaired in the workplace, and to bring together the multiple agencies involved: in this case, the general practitioner, addiction specialist, hospital administration, the Doctors’ Health Program, representatives from the doctor’s own specialist college, and the provision of support services for the colleagues – including a registrar and a medical student - traumatised after finding the doctor unconscious and apparently intoxicated.

Healthy doctors and a healthy profession – a personal reflection

By Dr Kym Jenkins, Conference convenor and Medical Director, Victorian Doctors’ Health Program

The Australasian Doctors’ Health Conference 2015 left me with three take-home messages regarding the health of doctors and the wellbeing of the medical profession. These were:

1. the importance of diversity within the medical profession. That for the medical profession to be healthy, we need not only doctors with different personality styles, but doctors from diverse cultural backgrounds and ethnicities, whatever their sexuality and gender;

2. the importance of being something or doing something other than being a doctor: what we do when we’re not practising medicine not only refreshes and rejuvenates us, but enriches us as human beings and, as a consequence, enriches us as doctors; and

3. the importance of a sense of connection. Isolation is not good for doctor health. Connections to our workplace, to our craft group, to our colleagues, to a learned College or a professional group, or to an individual such as a mentor, are all protective factors for keeping us healthy.

adhc2015 fulfilled its ambition in help make discussion about the need to keep ourselves and our profession healthy well and truly open. In 2015, taking an interest in doctor health is no longer seen as a frivolous or non-essential activity. There is an increasing body of work in this area and much more is still needed.

The next Australasian Doctors Health conference will be in in Sydney in 2017.


Published: 03 Nov 2015