One year on from the onslaught delivered to our profession by the COVID-19 virus, it’s been a hell of a ride. And for some, the wheels are coming off.
I have worked almost exclusively as a doctor’s doctor this past year, offering face to face and telehealth consultations to many doctors in various fields across Victoria and Australia. I remain firmly dedicated to my initial cause – to help doctors to get better so they can continue to care for their patients.
This year has seen an unprecedented rise in doctors seeking help. Recent advocacy in the doctor mental health space, including successful campaigns like #crazysocks4docs found by Dr Geoff Toogood, and the support of the federal Health Minister Greg Hunt after the tragic suicide of Dr Chloe Abbott, have made it much more acceptable to come forward and to seek help.
I am not sure if the rise in help seeking has come about from a reduction in barriers or from sheer demand. It seems to be both. The year of 2020 and the pandemic it hosted has now been bookended by two of the most horrific natural disasters in recent Australian history – the bushfires of 2019 and now the floods affecting a lot of our east coast. The fallout from the current floods will no doubt be washed away just as the fallout from the bushfires on GPs who worked and lived in their communities was.
Unfortunately, as we all expected, the pandemic didn’t end when 2020 did. The hope, albeit unrealistic and simplistic, is that it will now end when everybody is vaccinated against COVID-19. What an incredible expectation to place on the GP workforce, who are now in charge of rolling out vaccination to those deemed to be in category 1b and beyond.
GPs that are still reeling from telehealth implementation, a real danger of personally contracting COVID prior to stage 1 lockdown with little or no PPE, months of lockdown in some areas affecting their patients in countless ways, and now looming fears of a Medicare audit! With no break, no leave and nowhere to go.
GPs and their staff are now being pitted against an angry society that is fed up, hurting and in clear need of reprieve from the year that has been. Even with an endless supply of vaccine delivered in a timely manner, obviously not the reality, this ask is way too tough.
We can’t wait any longer for recognition of the unreasonable and unrelenting pressure we are placing on GPs, practice nurses, allied health professionals and indeed their staff. This recognition must come from their own college, who must support its members and continue to advocate fiercely for them and their patients.
The federal government is biased and self-serving here. The RACGP should not be.
The hard fact is that there are no incentives, no extra funding, no working platform for appointment bookings, no leave and no support. On top of all of that there are very incorrect and conflicting messages that avoid explaining the actual amount of vaccine we have at the ready for so many eligible people, and how we are going to vaccinate swiftly ahead of the next winter season in the southern hemisphere.
We have all been warned about the risk of losing doctors to suicide. I have begun to witness doctors walking away from their posts – valuable doctors who have served their communities through very difficult times. But this is just way too much in a world where the pressures keep coming with no reprieve. I don’t want to hear about losing doctors to suicide. We have enough programs, incentives, initiatives and awareness now to avoid this.
What we do not have is the practical and emotional support at the coal face that would indeed help as a circuit breaker for many. A way of fending off fears of potential Medicare PSR audits after using telehealth to deliver primary health care or help with tapering the anger and frustration from patients who won’t understand why they have to wait for a vaccine when they don’t even know how the waiting period works.
During the second wave of COVID infections in Melbourne, many doctors were redeployed to assist in our public hospital system and there is now a need to assist primary care in the same way.
I call for a national strategy whereby GPs can be relieved of their posts to avoid surrender. All doctors and practice staff must be able to be given leave and a break from this most unrelenting of pressures – especially now that some are being targeted as potentially defrauding Medicare. Timing could not be more cruel.
Our Primary Health Networks are funded to support primary care. So we have resources to make a leave program happen in record time. We have keen medical students who helped greatly in the first and second waves with COVID testing at testing sites. And we have enough information about safe hours and campaigns that target overwork with no reprieve to inform a process that truly assists GPs and their staff to have a break and catch their breath.
Because, Minister Hunt, we both know about doctor mental health in Australia and you have pledged to assist. You have met with us, you know our pressures and you are fully aware of how to help. You made that promise to the Abbott family, and we will be holding you to it.
Dr Helen Schultz is a consultant psychiatrist who specialises in doctor mental health. She has held positions including clinical reference lead for the Australian Digital Health Agency and medical director of the Victorian Doctors’ Health Program.