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More Canadian doctors reported burnout, considered suicide over the past year: CMA survey – National

More Canadian doctors and medical professionals reported burnout and considered suicide over the past year as compared to pre-COVID times, a new national survey shows.

The survey conducted by the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) from Oct. 13 to Dec. 13, 2021, involving 4,121 physicians and medical learners, states that in the past 12 months, over half of the respondents reported experiencing symptoms of burnout — 1.7 times higher compared to four years ago.

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Other psychological factors, apart from burnout, where there have been “alarming increases” include rates of positive screening for depression and recent suicidal ‘ideation’, according to the report published Thursday.

The survey shows that half of the 4,121 respondents screened positive for depression, an increase of 1.4 times or 13 percentage points compared with 2017. And recent suicidal ideation, in the past 12 months, was reported by 14 per cent of respondents, an increase of 1.5 times or five percentage points since 2017.

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“Heavy workloads, demanding standards of training and practice, and complex practice environments are just some of the factors that can put any physician at higher risk of personal and professional dissatisfaction, burnout and depression,” the CMA said in its survey report.

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The key findings from the study reveal that many subgroups in the medical field are experiencing significantly higher burnout, including medical residents, those under 35 years of age, those identifying as women, those practicing six to 10 years, caregivers of a child and/or parent or family member in the home, those living with disabilities, and those working in small town/rural or isolated/remote areas.

According to the report, women are 59 per cent more likely to experience burnout compared to 43 per cent of men. The increase in burnout since 2017 is much higher among women, with 26 percentage points higher from 2017 versus 14 percentage points among men.

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Respondents under the age of 54 (61 per cent) are also significantly more likely to be experiencing burnout than those 55 and older (38 per cent), the report added.

When it comes to respondents practicing in small towns (58 per cent) or isolated/remote areas (60 per cent), reports of burnout were higher than those in urban/suburban areas (51 per cent).

“It increased by 25 percentage points among respondents in small town/rural areas and doubled, increasing by 30 percentage points, among respondents in isolated/remote areas,” the report stated.

According to the report, “while medical residents are more likely to experience burnout, screen positive for depression, and report recent suicidal ideation in the pre-pandemic… practicing physicians have seen larger percentage increases (of burnout, depression and suicidal ideation) compared with pre-pandemic (2017) levels.”

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Also contributing to the burnout for some physicians was the social isolation, uncertainty about the future, and increased family obligations brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The report shows that the likelihood of physicians reducing clinical work hours in the coming years is higher among those who have reported having depression, anxiety, and low professional fulfillment. Half of the respondents are thinking of reducing or modifying their clinical work hours in the next 24 months, the report said.

“While a growing shortage of physicians was certainly an issue pre-pandemic, the cost of increased burnout in the form of early retirements and reduced clinical hours due to the pandemic may be substantial in the coming years,” the report said.

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The report states that there is a “silver lining to the findings,” with COVID-19 prompting a “culture shift” towards prioritizing wellness.

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This is seen among younger physicians, like medical residents and those under age 25, who report prioritizing their personal wellness and seeking help to support their well-being, “possibly an indication of the fading stigma associated with seeking mental health support,” the report said.

Some of those who are at a higher risk of psychological distress, such as women, are also accessing them. Nevertheless, the report says that there are still significant barriers to overcome in terms of increasing access, overcoming stigma, and emphasizing the need to seek out wellness supports.

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“For some physicians, stigma and shame (among men and older people), or a belief that things aren’t serious enough to necessitate seeking help (among women), may be preventing them from seeking out help,” the report said.

The survey also shows that confidentiality is often cited as a reason why many physicians don’t access supports. This is particularly the case among younger doctors and those practising in small towns, rural areas and isolated, remote sectors. They worry about potential harm to their career.

“Their geographic location and the size of the community in which they practice may mean that even in the best of circumstances they lack some of the social connections and wellness supports that physicians practising in urban areas may tap into more easily,” the report said.

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“With limited staff in these areas, it may also be difficult to take any time off to prioritize their wellness.”

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