‘Care for the doctor’s health, too’

Caring for the mental health of physicians and nurses is of utmost importance. Not only are they at greater risk of becoming burnt out or even committing suicide, but a stressed-out physician is also far more likely to make mistakes.

‘You do not want to be treated by a burnt out physician’, said professor Jo Shapiro in her inaugural lecture at the University of Groningen today. ‘A burnt out or depressed doctor communicates poorly, shows less empathy and has an increased chance of medical errors.’

Shapiro is a surgeon, co-founder and director of the Center for Professionalism & Peer Support of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. She specializes in training doctors to help their collegues after a calamity or medical mistake.

Committing suicide

Mental health issues are common among doctors, she says. A male physician has a 40 per cent higher chance of committing suicide than the general male population. The risk for a female doctor is 130 per cent higher than among women in general. Often, this is a reaction to medical errors or calamities; since doctors are healers, ‘Harming a patient is the worst experience of a doctor’s life’, Shapiro says.

Nonetheless, a physician is too often left to fend for him- or herself after a mistake has been made. The most common reaction in hospitals is naming and shaming, which amounts to isolating the doctor. That’s why medical errors are often not reported and no lessons are learned from mistakes of the past.

Training nurses

These problems can be avoided by training nurses and doctors to help their collegues after mistakes have been made and ensuring that a programme is in place where inappropriate behaviour can be reported safely. In doing so, the hope is that a lot of these problems can be avoided.

As a professor of Professionalism and Peer Support in Groningen, Shapiro has already trained 70 nurses to help their collegues at the UMCG. She will expand the programme in the near future.