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Why are Nova Scotia’s doctors burning out? The answer may surprise you.

As patients, the health of our doctors is not something we usually think about. We often take it for granted that the people we consult to help us manage our own health are healthy themselves. But the results of a recent survey by Doctors Nova Scotia (DNS) suggest otherwise.Working with Dr. Michael Leiter, PhD, and the Centre for Organizational Research and Development at Acadia University, the association polled doctors located across the province, asking about their work-life balance and how well they are handling the daily stress of their jobs.

A total of 372 doctors responded, with 50 percent saying that they have symptoms of burnout and another 20 percent saying they feel ineffective. Click here for the full survey report.

Burnout affects everyone differently; it can mean being mentally and physically exhausted, cynical and unproductive. The majority of the doctors who responded to our survey reported feeling overextended, disengaged, ineffective or fully burnt out.

The survey results showed that the burnout our province’s doctors are experiencing is the result of system issues, not the result of individual failings or a lack of self-care. Administrative hassles, financial concerns and limits on doctor autonomy all contribute to the problem. Indeed, 30 percent of doctors polled said they perceived a lack of respect for their expertise from the government and the Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSHA).

“It’s alarming that Nova Scotia’s physicians are struggling with burnout,” says Dr. Manoj Vohra, President of DNS. “The physician workforce in Nova Scotia is fragile and at risk.”

One major contributing factor is that Nova Scotia’s physician workforce is under-resourced. The provincial government’s Physician Resource Plan identifies the need to recruit more than 1,000 additional doctors to Nova Scotia over the next eight to 10 years – but there is also an immediate need.

Even now, there are not enough doctors to meet the health-care needs of Nova Scotians. Indeed, the province still needs to fill 60 vacancies for primary care physicians – physicians who could provide care for some of the 90,000 Nova Scotians who do not have a family doctor.

Without enough doctors to meet the needs of patients, the physicians who are practising now are bearing the burden: working long hours and taking on excessive patient loads.

Doctors are also struggling to take much-deserved time away from their practices. They can’t find locum physicians to provide care for their patients during maternity leaves or extended sick leaves. Many are even delaying retirement because they worry about leaving their patients without care. The situation is particularly difficult in rural regions of the province and in Cape Breton.

It’s a vicious cycle. With the province already struggling to recruit and retain doctors, the physicians who are currently practising will be at an even greater risk for burnout.

“Physicians enter medicine because they feel called to help people,” says Dr. Vohra. “Physicians want to care for patients rather than dealing with these systemic issues.”

Doctors Nova Scotia is taking this issue seriously. The association is helping doctors who are experiencing burnout, working to restore a productive relationship between DNS, the government and the NSHA, and working with physicians to solve the problems they face each day.

As part of its Professional Support Program, Doctors Nova Scotia has also developed a new pilot program called “Physician, Heal Thyself” offering workshops for doctors that specifically address the challenges they face on a daily basis. The workshops cover a range of topics, including how to help doctors deal with and prevent burnout, build personal resilience, develop preventative health strategies and achieve better work-life balance.

Ultimately, we all want our doctors to be healthy, productive and focused on what they do best: care for their patients.

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