Mark Twain once said, “The physician who knows only medicine, knows not even medicine.” In order to be adept at the art of health and healing, you need to start with yourself. Your first patient is you. If you constantly explore how you define your own health, you will be more present and successful in helping your patients do the same. And more importantly, you will be happier and fulfilled in your life’s work.
To begin with, the health and in particular mental health status of medical professionals in our country is a cause for concern. A study conducted by the India Medical Association (IMA) in 2018 suggests that the average lifespan of urban Indian doctors ranges from 55 to 59 years. This is alarming when compared to the average life expectancy of 72 years.
Even during normal times, there is a lack of work-life balance in a medical professional’s life more often than not. There is no legislation like the European Working Time Directive (EWTD) to safeguard the need for work-life balance. In the private sector, where a majority of medical professionals work, the situation is even worse as market forces and financial incentives drive the work life. In the long and arduous journey of a doctor’s life, there are several bottlenecks, most notably the period after completing post-graduation. When one trying to establish a practice, there is often a dearth of work in the initial years. When practice starts to pick up like it usually does one is unable to set limits and boundaries on the amount of work one does.
On the above background of a doctor’s work-life when we throw in the tsunami of demand brought about by the waves of pandemic-related activity, it is the perfect recipe for disaster. Depending on the speciality, several types of extreme stressors are faced by doctors and other medical professionals. Some of them can be summarised as listed below-
· Working without required personal protective safeguards or equipment,
· Witnessing human suffering,
· Making life and death decisions,
· Fear of infecting family members,
· Separation from family,
· Fear of getting sick,
· Mental exhaustion.
All of the above and other stressors can cumulatively lead to mental health issues. These can range from minor illnesses like anxiety-based disorders to major depression and addiction issues. When left unchecked these can destroy lives.
Medical professionals need to be aware of their own well-being above everything else. If they are not going to be well then not only they will be of no use to the community, but also will end up being a burden. One needs to aware of one’s limitations as humans and set very clear time and emotional boundaries. There have to be teamwork and support structures in place to manage the stress this kind of work brings.
The very basic tenets of well-being include balance in work and personal life, a healthy breakdown of a typical day which includes exercise, leisure activities, relaxation, and unwinding, etc. If one aspires to sustain a high-stress career these norms cannot be ignored for long.
Pandemic will end sooner or later but medical professionals compromising on the basic tenets of wellbeing are doing it at their own peril.
Dr. Vinod Kumar, Psychiatrist, and Head-Mpower-The Centre, Bengaluru
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