Dr Amran Dhillon is an Anaesthesia Registrar and a long time advocate for a change to the ‘work till you drop’ culture in many hospitals.
“Doctors are supposed to be amongst the smartest people but we do a lot of dumb things too,” he says. “The 14-hour shifts that doctors work can be soul-destroying and really impact on their wellbeing. One of the problems is doctors are used to working hard from a very early age but the workload can be relentless.”
The impact of COVID
Ironically, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in some much needed changes to health systems, staffing levels and the culture of working long hours.
“It has taken a worldwide pandemic to improve staffing levels in hospitals,” Dr Amran says.
“Thanks to support from federal and state governments, hospitals have been able to bring in more staff. Hopefully, this will be a permanent change and lead to better patient-staff ratios.”
“One other good thing to come out of COVID is there's so much more talk around mental health and spending time with your family,” says Dr Amran. “Going home to spend time with your family is more respected and valued now. It’s embedded in the culture to just keep going and get by on a few hours sleep. We reward people that work hard but there's not enough credit given to people who actually look after themselves and prioritise their family, health and wellbeing, instead of their work.”
While there have been some positive changes, there is still lots more to do, according to Dr Amran.
“We're battling this virus to try and protect people and we don’t have the option to work from home. That has been stressful. What happens if there’s an outbreak where we work? Some industries were so quick to change and adapt during the pandemic, but the industry that is on the frontline fighting war is the least supported, least adaptable and not nearly progressive enough. Some hospitals are only rolling out computer systems now that they should have had years ago. So change is happening slowly, but it is happening.”
Lookout for each other
To help embed culture change in the health system, Dr Dhillon is involved with a national wellbeing committee to create frameworks and standardised procedures that can be rolled out to hospitals.
“We need simple things like making sure hospitals have pathways where junior doctors can ask for help. I’d love to see hospitals create a new role for a medical support officer or a medical education officer who is on call to help out any junior doctors who are struggling.”
“They might feel isolated, they might be struggling with a challenging patient, they might even be having difficulty getting an IV in. Whatever their issue is, the medical support officer is there to lend a hand. Junior doctors usually can’t talk to senior doctors because they’re too busy running around looking after four or five patients at a time. ‘Sorry, I can’t help you right now. Figure it out for yourself,’ is a typical response. That’s a learning opportunity missed and everyone suffers including the patient and the junior doctor. That needs to change.”
“The good news is it’s not too late. We can hit the reset button. We have a chance to change what the profession looks like in the future. Some people are scared to be open and honest about the conditions doctors work in because they’re afraid they’ll lose their job. But we need to tell the truth. That's how change happens.”