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The Australian woman saving the lives of doctors

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Doctors often do not know how to take care of themselves. Sharee Johnson’s new book, The Thriving Doctor, plans to change that!

It’s a horrifying statistic: every day in the US, a doctor takes their own life. But perhaps it’s not really all that surprising. Consider this: Doctors are high achievers who are required to study long and hard to make it into the profession in the first place.

Then they continue to work long hours, usually competing for limited places in their chosen specialties, and often face life-and-death decisions – all while they themselves are tired and stressed.

How can a doctor tell a patient they need to reduce stress, sleep better, or eat better to help improve their health when they themselves are stressed and fatigued? Doctors are required to deal with patients who are in pain and often frightened. Yet our doctors are the product of a system that trains them to be dispassionate, clinical and “perfect”.

Australian psychologist, coach and author Sharee Johnson’s new book The Thriving Doctor – How To Be More Balanced And Fulfilled Working In Medicine aims to arm doctors with the skills to look after their own wellbeing so they can provide the best possible healthcare to others.

Launched last week, it is already being hailed by US health professionals. US-based cardiologist Dr Jonathan Fisher MD FACC calls The Thriving Doctor is “a gift to doctors everywhere”.

The book – and the skills it teaches – are something American College of Emergency Physicians, government services chapter immediate past president Dr Andrea Austin wishes she had sooner: “The Thriving Doctor … explains so eloquently the numerous factors that lead to doctor burnout, and the necessary internal work required to be able to fully show up to do the important work of doctoring.

The Thriving Doctor was born out of Johnson’s anger, in the wake of her husband Tim’s cancer death 10 years ago, over their interactions with some healthcare professionals during his four years of illness. “We dealt with many health professionals who were great, and then those who were – let’s just say, not so great,” Johnson says.

“We spent a lot of energy on our frustrations over how some doctors spoke to us, or their apparent lack of interest or compassion. After Tim’s death, I wanted to be a patient advocate because I was angry. But when I started asking questions, I realised it was the doctors who needed help.

“As patients we can often forget that doctors are only human – and doctors also forget they are only human, there is a strong culture of never showing weakness. But many, many of them are burnt out. It was quite shocking to learn how many doctors are affected by anxiety, depression, drug abuse and suicide.

“Doctors have little training in communication, they don’t have any system of regular debriefing and they are not trained how to look after themselves emotionally. They have been taught from an early age that, as doctors, their patients come before anything else – even their families and themselves.”

Through the book and her coaching work, Johnson is helping doctors and others in the medical profession to look after their own emotional wellbeing.

As Dr Robert Blum, an Australian Health clinical director of cancer service says, doctors are “highly competitive, highly intelligent, with a strong work ethic – to be seen as anything other than that is potentially to be seen as failure … but have to accept we can’t do it all.

“We have to make a priority to look after ourselves to be able to perform at our best. Some people may perceive it as selfish but it is self-preservation. It is a false economy to sacrifice your own wellbeing for others.”

Johnson’s work and book also has a strong focus on helping doctors develop better connections and communications with colleagues and patients, which in turn leads to better health outcomes for patients.

In Australia, GP Educator Dr Elizabeth Wearne said The Thriving Doctor should be “required reading” for all doctors.

In many ways we create the perfect environment for burnout in the way we train doctors, teaching them to depersonalise and focus on the ‘other’ rather than the role of the self in the therapeutic relationship,” Dr Wearne says.

“It is one of the biggest threats to modern medicine – not only because doctors themselves suffer and leave the profession, but it seriously limits our ability to provide high-quality patient care and to truly support and champion our colleagues.”

Johnson says doctors will be better able to help transform our problematic health systems when they have the skills and self-awareness they need for self-care and care of each other first.

“I hope The Thriving Doctor leads to more conversations about doctor wellbeing, about how they feel when they are exhausted, and that by building the skills the book helps with doctors will feel more fulfilled. What doctors do is amazing, we all have a vested interest in their wellbeing.”

Sharee Johnson is a registered psychologist and Australia’s leading doctor coach, owner of SKJ Consulting and founder of Coaching For Doctors. Her book The Thriving Doctor – How To Be More Balanced And Fulfilled Working In Medicine is available now in all good book stores. RRP $32.99. More information: www.coachingfordoctors.net.au/

 

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