Health professionals must look after their own health too

29 Oct 2020

Speech:      AMA President, Dr Steve Hambleton


I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today, and pay my respects to their elders, both past and present.

On behalf of the Conference organisers, I note the impressive international speakers in attendance - Dr Andrée Rochfort from Ireland; Dr Brian Wells from the UK, and Dr Derek Puddester from Canada.

A special welcome also to the many international delegates, including a large delegation from New Zealand.  Please don’t mention the rugby and we won’t mention the America’s Cup.

Good evening to you all as we join together at this Conference to talk about a very important topic – our own health.

In an important move, this Conference has broadened its focus to cover the health of all health professionals. What was once the Doctors’ Health Conference is now the Health Professionals’ Health Conference.

This is very significant and very appropriate.  We are all part of the health care team working to improve the health of the community.

It is vital that team members help other team members to stay healthy. We must offer each other support, encouragement and advice.

It is important that doctors and other health professionals look after their health. We need to be healthy to offer the best care to our patients and to experience rewarding and satisfying careers.

Conferences such as this play a vital role in promoting the health and wellbeing of health professionals during training and during our professional careers. These Conferences shine a light on an issue that for a long time stayed hidden and not talked about.

Our own health issues were taboo, but that is now changing. It is good for us to get together in the light – in the open – to share stories and to learn from each other’s experiences.

Research has consistently shown that doctors with healthy personal lifestyle habits are more likely to impart healthy behaviours to their patients.

Staying well is more than just being physically healthy.

The World Health Organisation defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.

There has been a welcome increase in the awareness more broadly in the community of doctors’ health issues in recent years.

This has mainly been a result of the medical community’s changing attitude to the promotion of health among our colleagues.   

Work-life balance is so important.  It could be music, it could be writing, it could be bushwalking, it could be spending time with your family - but it’s not all about work.

I should also pay tribute to the emerging medical profession for really highlighting these issues within the AMA.

It has been the medical students and the Doctors in Training who have been most vocal to ensure that they and all of their colleagues are able to access the health care that we need.

We go through interesting stages in medicine.

As a medical student learning about anatomy, biochemistry, and physiology - and then the manifestations of disease – I concluded that I was suffering from quite a few of them. 
Thankfully, I was wrong.

As a registrar, I had made it.  I was on top of the latest information.  I became bullet proof.  No disease would dare descend on me. Yep, I was wrong again.  Hopefully, I am a little more balanced now.

I have two short stories. One is about a highly respected colleague who developed chest pain in the middle of the night.  He was an ex-smoker, morbidly obese, and a bit older than me with who knows how many other risk factors.  

He woke up with central chest pain, he was sweaty and clammy – what did he do? He concluded he was suffering from indigestion and did not want to bother the ambulance or look foolish in front of his colleagues.

So he waited patiently for the sun to come up before he sought attention for his coronary occlusion.

The next story is about me. Given that my major exercise is punching the keys on a computer, it is important for me to take my own advice about staying fit and getting regular exercise.

So, I took a holiday recently and realised that fitness and me were not on the same page. 
Upon walking up a “very steep hill” on Lord Howe Island, I took my pulse and found it was 192. If you take the standard formula for maximum heart rate of 220 – minus your age – mine is 168.

Was that a vague chest pain I was feeling?  Then and there, my wife made me promise to see my GP – and yes, I will.  It’s time for a check-up and time to restart the exercise program.

Doctors are not alone.  It is the same for other health professions.  

The common belief is: ‘we don’t get sick, we treat sick people and, besides, we are too busy to go to a doctor’.

Attitudes are changing and we are all off to a good start, but there is more to do.

Today’s workshop on ‘doctors as patients’ was a good reminder of the need for us all to develop skills in this area - both as the doctor and the patient.

The AMA has now made the health and welfare of doctors a priority. 

As health professionals, we have a responsibility to ensure that programs exist to assist our colleagues to access quality health care when they need it. 

For the medical profession, doctors’ health programs are important to facilitate doctors’ access to health services, along with the education and research roles some of these programs currently undertake.

The AMA has for some time had strong links to existing doctors’ health services. The State AMAs provide financial and in-kind support for doctors’ health advisory services in a number of States and Territories 

The AMA has been a strong advocate for Medical Board funding of more formal programs, while recognising the need for funding arrangements to be independent and at arm’s length to ensure doctors trust these services and seek help. 

At the same time, the impact of mandatory reporting has resulted in some States seeing dramatic decreases in access to these programs – in Queensland, for example. This is a retrograde step.

The AMA has been vocal in calling for exemptions from mandatory notification requirements for doctors treating colleagues and medical students.

Developing formal programs that encourage our colleagues to adopt good lifestyle behaviours, and seek formal health care when necessary, is a relatively new area for the other health professions - despite experiencing many of the same issues.

It is important that we adopt a multidisciplinary approach, especially in areas where stressors and barriers to health care are similar.

A good example of this is bullying and harassment in the workplace, where other health professionals may be witness to events but don't feel empowered to intervene.   

The evidence is clear that workplace bullying contributes to poor employee health, including the physical and psychological manifestations of stress and depression.

Today’s workshop on maintaining resilience in the workplace provided a guide for us all on how to identify and manage workplace bullying and harassment, raise awareness, and reduce the exposure to workplace bullying and harassment.

There is much we can do together to combat its perpetuation.

We have a responsibility to ensure that students across all disciplines are also taught how to build resilience in the workplace.

We must help them identify the stress factors contributing to poor health, recognise the warning signs and behaviour patterns, and have coping strategies in place to deal with these issues.

I am pleased to see there is a student-specific workshop on Saturday that focuses on student wellbeing.

I encourage you to explore and enjoy the multiple streams and sessions at this Conference. It is a fantastic program.

On behalf of you all, I thank Margaret Kay and the Doctors’ Health Advisory Service (Queensland) for their hard work in putting this Conference together.

A big thank you also to the other organisations – especially beyondblue and Avant – for their contribution to the Conference and in addressing the issues around the health of health professionals.

Once again, a big welcome to everybody.  I hope you all enjoy the Conference and take home some important information and lessons.

3 October 2013

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