Doctors often need help so they can keep helping patients

By • Published: April 1st, 2011
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Doctors are notoriously lousy patients. In some cases, however, reluctance to be on the business end of the stethoscope might be warranted, especially when stigmatized conditions such as mental health illness are involved. Concerns about confidentiality, embarrassment and loss of regard among colleagues can keep physicians from getting the help they need.

But doctors in need of health care deserve as much compassion and empathy as other patients. Reducing stigma and barriers to seeking care can help keep them in as good shape as the patients they work so hard to help.

Studies show that depression among physicians occurs at about the same rate as in the general population. And by some estimates, ten percent of all physicians will develop a substance-related disorder. Traditionally, mental illness among physicians has been addressed largely as a patient safety issue, rather than as concern for the affected physician. That approach has contributed to a culture of stigmatization and punishment rather than one of compassion, but that is very slowly changing.

Studies show that people who have more familiarity and personal contact with others who have mental health problems tend to discriminate less. And people are shunned less when their condition is thought to stem from a medical cause or accident rather than from personal action. With that in mind, creating a culture that educates physicians and physicians-in-training about mental illness and offers support, resources and encouragement … rather than threats of punishment… can help reduce stigma.

As a result, physicians will be more likely to acknowledge when they need help. That’s the first step toward receiving the treatment they need, so they get on the road to recovery all the faster. And when they are in their best health, that means even better care for their patients.