An American report conducted post-pandemic found that about 51% of female physicians said they were burned compared with 36% of men (Medscape, 2021).
This follows a 2021 Association of Salaried Medical Specialists (ASMS) study that showed that 70% of women in medicine in their 30s exhibited signs of burnout (Medworld, 2021).
Medworld spoke with Dr Amanda Wijeratne, both a GP and a specialist in Women’s and Children’s health about how we can work on turning these statistics around.
Dr Amanda Wijeratne works as a General Practitioner in a busy Sydney practice. She is a wife to (her best friend) and husband and a mum to two little boys.
“I can’t remember the day when I realised I wanted to be a doctor. I think I had an idea that I wanted to help people from a young age. I also found the human body fascinating.”
Dr Wijeratne studied Science when she left school and majored in Anatomy and Neuroscience. However, she realised that Academia wasn’t for her long term and applied for Medicine.
“Looking back, being at uni studying Medicine has to be one of the best times of my life- no doubt it was humbling, but I really enjoyed the experience.”
Becoming an advocate for women’s health
Dr Wijeratne was lucky enough to do a general practice term as a junior medical doctor. As a young female doctor, she noticed that she seemed to attract the young female patients (and their children). This encouraged her to want to learn more about these subspecialties.
“I can identify with this demographic. Along the way I have learned that one of the most powerful tools I have as a doctor is my voice and an important role in my job is using my voice to advocate for the more vulnerable in our community – often women and children.”
Burn Out Post pandemic
The statistics in the Medscape report showed that post-pandemic doctor burnout has increased, this is not surprising given the added physical and mental stress the pandemic has put on the industry. Dr Wijeratne explained how it has affected her as a general practitioner.
“The pandemic resulted in a lot of changes in how we practice. One big change was doing the majority of consultations via telehealth. I found this exhausting. I was doing the same amount of consultations that I had done previously but I found the lack of face-to-face consultations draining. Also, not having the patient in front of you and sometimes reluctant to come in for face-to-face consultation meant safety netting took longer and I had a lower threshold for re-review in some cases. It felt like more work and inevitably more paperwork was involved.”
The added stress of COVID-19 has seen anxiety levels rise, and every patient who feels a tickle in their throat wonders if they should get a test, meaning GP’s are taking more and more calls from patients who would normally not contact a doctor about a common cold.
“I also found that more consultations had an element of mental health work in them compared to previous. I suspect female GPs are more likely to see more mental health presentations than their male counterparts. There was a period at the height of the pandemic in 2020 (similar to the last week) that every consult had some discussion about the patient’s COVID risk.”
3 Tips for other female physicians on how to combat burnout
1. Carve out the time
I believe carving out time for self-care is imperative. Believe me, I appreciate how hard it can be (at the moment I am working, managing lockdown with a preschooler at home; my 8-month-old has decided he wants to wake up multiple times a night in the last few weeks, my husband is a front line shift worker, we need clean clothes, and oh yeah – we need to eat!)
2. It’s all about self-care
My tip for female doctors is: you really need to believe that self-care isn’t selfish. That’s really tough for a lot of women (me included) because there are only 24 hours in a day, 7 days in a week. With all our responsibilities – sometimes, something needs to give - and often that’s our own self-care. Maybe self-care is easier to sacrifice rather than saying “no” to another responsibility? I think part of that comes from the culture we grew up in, in the hospital setting where there is an expectation that the work needs to be done and work comes first. The unspoken assumption then is that your personal life and wellbeing come after that. I believe that culture is changing.
The reality is – if I don’t look after myself – I cannot look after my family or my patients to the best of my ability. I think we need to repeat that to ourselves regularly – “If I don’t look after me, I can’t look after them”
3. Don’t ignore your own health
What does “self-care” look like? I believe it is giving yourself the opportunity to do the things you want or needs to do– whether that be – go for a walk, meet a friend, have a bath, go to the gym, go on a date, meditate, see a psychologist, see your doctor. That’s another tip – find a GP. See your GP. Talk, as a patient to your GP when you feel you need to – don’t ignore your own health.
Personally, I really need to get outside at least once a day. Whether that be putting the baby in the carrier and going for a walk or taking my oldest to the park, or if I can manage it – getting out alone – it can be so energising. Music and dance are really important to me also– I haven’t had the chance to get back to regular dancing which I used to do prior to having kids but I generally have music on at home, in the car, and when I’m doing paperwork at work. It can be anything but I do have a soft spot for anything from the 80s and 90s and inevitably I’ll tap my feet (at the very least!). Sometimes at the end of a long day, I enjoy some downtime by watching Netflix but probably the most important thing for me is to check in, download, debrief and have a laugh with my husband.