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Healthy physicians equals healthy patients

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The tragic death of a medical resident just before the start of the recent Canadian Conference on Physician Health in Calgary provided a powerful reminder of why the Canadian Medical Association feels it is so important to acknowledge  the importance of maintaining the health of doctors and helping our colleagues in need.

A large part of maintaining that health involves reconnecting with each other, supporting each other and striving to be happy in both our professional and personal lives. My colleague Dr. Derek Puddester, director of Canadian Physician Health Institute perhaps put it best in opening the two-day meeting when he stated:  “Remember you are in a room of support. This is our house, this is our community, this is our tribe. We support each other because that is what we do best.”

That message is one that continued throughout the incredibly rich series of presentations given during the conference. I had the honour of closing the event and I reminded my colleagues that we have been given a unique opportunity to make sure the health of the population at large is as good as it can be – in part by making sure we stay healthy ourselves.

In the past two decades, there has been a growing recognition of the need to address mental health issues and problems of addiction that can afflict physicians. While physicians in general practice what they preach and strive to maintain good physician and mental health, the unique challenges facing doctors means suicide continues to be much more common among physicians than other professionals.

As one of my predecessors as president of the CMA Dr. Ruth Collins-Nakai  noted, despite the strong network of physician health programs across Canada, access to the resources of these programs is variable and many doctors remain unaware of the help that is available to them.

The theme of this year’s Canadian Conference on Physician Health was “harnessing wisdom across generations to promote physician health.” Much of the discussion focused on enhancing physician health in the medical education system and examining intergenerational perspectives to improve physician health and the workplace culture.

Dr. Kevin Busche, a neurologist at the University of Calgary, explored as he talked about the four different generations working in medicine right now and the different expectations and strengths each group brings to the profession. Harnessing the synergies between these generations can make us all healthier.

Hospital-based physicians could relate well to two of the other major foci of discussions at this year’s meeting – how to deal with disruptive colleagues and the implications of the new digital technologies that are pervasive in the practice of medicine today.

Understanding and managing disruptive behavior by physicians throughout the career cycle was addressed by three expert physicians associated with the Canadian Medical Protective Association (CMPA). The representatives provided advice on how all parts of a health care institution can work to address this issue. The CMPA has also recently carried out extensive work to better understand the complex mental health issues that can underlie such behavior and how best to manage it.

Delegates at the meeting were almost evenly divided about whether digital connectivity has a positive or negative impact on physician health. A lively and often humorous debate on the topic did not sway delegates as electronic voting showed 52 per cent of audience members felt digital connectivity had a negative impact on health both at the start and end of the debate.

Opening plenary speaker psychiatrist Dr. Michael Myers noted mobile devices and email can make it difficult for some physicians to retain a balance between work and home life. He talked of some doctors who get up during the night and are unable to go back to bed because they get caught up checking emails, tweets etc.

The debate on the issue featured CMA past-president Dr. Anna Reid, UBC health technology expert Dr. Kendall Ho, resident Dr. David Ward and medical student Joshua Bezanson.  Discussion was wide-ranging and included references to the Borg from Star Trek and a digression on the evils of using mobile devices while driving.

Throughout the debate, chaired by Calgary’s Dr. David Topps, audience members were polled on their attitudes towards and use of digital technologies. While 61 per cent of the audience felt it was always inappropriate to use mobile devices while dining with family or friends, there was still a significant minority who admitted to always having their mobile in the bedroom while sleeping (35%).

In my closing remarks I noted that while most of us love what we do, few Canadian doctors love the health care system in which they work. We must change that so we can ensure the system is supporting keeping patients as healthy as possible.
The conference was presented by the Canadian Physician Health Institute and co-hosted with the Alberta Medical Association (AMA) and the AMA Physician and Family Support Program.

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