My burnout was born from a health system that treats emergencies as a panacea | Stephane Parnis


“Doctor, heal yourself.

This proverb has been used for at least 2,000 years, but it is relevant today, and it applies to me.

I’m dealing with burnout, and it took me several months to realize it.

The combination of a few years of heavy workloads, ever-increasing demands and limited opportunities to rest and recharge has taken its toll.

The advent of a global pandemic has clearly contributed to all of these factors. The scramble to prepare our hospitals for a disease with high infectiousness and severity. The privilege and pain of caring for many of those I have seen die in 2020. The anguish of dealing with vaccine denials, and wave after wave of Covid cases, and often overwhelming new demands for me- even and my colleagues.

They besieged my energy and my empathy.

You have to see the demands on many of us in emergency medicine and nursing. Their origins lie in a health care system that treats emergency services as the panacea to all its shortcomings: a disastrous aged care system, a general practice system that discourages the management of complex patients, a under-resourced mental health and a federal/state health funding system where cost shifting and whistleblowing are the reality.

Emergency physicians have been talking about overcrowded hospitals for more than 20 years, and burnout is nothing new for many of my fellow doctors, nurses and paramedics who have given so much to care for people in the worst times of their lives. But the overcrowding, delays and adverse effects on patients have never been so profound as they are today. Unsurprisingly, the morale of my colleagues took a huge hit.

Burnout didn’t happen to me overnight. Rather, it has been a gradual erosion of my usual coping mechanisms, to the point where my physical and mental energy has become so much harder to come by. Decisions and procedures that are usually second nature to me now require considerable effort and cause more anguish than they should. Joy has been hard to find, not only in my job – which should be very satisfying – but in most activities of my daily life. I cannot be indifferent to seeing people suffer on the floors of waiting rooms and on the stretchers of ambulances, when I know I could help, if only I had the space and the personnel to do so.

I am aware of the data that clearly shows that clinicians suffering from burnout are impaired. We are less efficient and we are much more likely to make mistakes. In my role, errors can be very serious.

Although many colleagues were surprised to learn of my situation – perhaps I am good at hiding my personal distress – I have come to understand the impact of burnout on the people I love. more. My family. I have often been irritable, distracted, and unable to give myself fully to them in the way they need and deserve. This is probably the trigger that led me to take the advice of my psychologist, my general practitioner and my emergency doctor wife. To deal with my burnout before it got any worse.

I was advised to take time off from my clinical work for three months. It was hard to accept, but I am very grateful to my colleagues who have been supportive and understanding and have sought to ease the guilt I feel about not being there to meet the extreme demands we are under.

I have chosen to speak publicly about my situation, as I hope it will empower many healthcare workers to put their own care higher. In this, they demonstrate professionalism and ethics, do their best to be safe and efficient in their work and make their careers sustainable.

I am speaking out because the most lasting solution to healthcare worker burnout is to address the daunting problems in the Australian healthcare system that are causing it. We are in the federal election campaign and yet the offers of our political leaders for the reform and improvement of the health care system have been evasive or superficial. I hope that will change in the coming weeks.

As I step away from the front line for a while, I look forward to the rest and reflection I need. I don’t know how my absence will change me, but I hope I can return as a wiser, better man who can care for many. Me included.

Dr Stephen Parnis is an emergency physician in Melbourne and former Vice President of the Australian Medical Association.


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