'We're only human,' say doctors, as they advocate for better work-life balance

Burnout should not be normalised

28 May 2021 - 07:22
Through a series of three interviews with junior doctors in SA, all on very different paths, the 'A Quiet Implosion' documentary seeks to explore some of the root causes of so many doctors not coping.
Through a series of three interviews with junior doctors in SA, all on very different paths, the 'A Quiet Implosion' documentary seeks to explore some of the root causes of so many doctors not coping.
Image: 123RF/lightwise

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought into focus the importance of front-line healthcare workers.

This is according to three young doctors in SA, who shared their experiences in a documentary. They hope the sharing of their experiences will result in positive change.

The documentary, titled A Quiet Implosion: Exploring the untold narratives of junior doctors in SA, explores some of the root causes of so many doctors not coping, and looks at how the problem can be addressed.

“I think the pandemic has, essentially, shone a light on what has been existing before,” said 28-year-old doctor Dr Anesu Mbizvo, a yoga teacher and entrepreneur in Johannesburg.

The documentary, launched online on Thursday, was produced by Dr Cyan Brown, a 28-year-old medical doctor with a passion for public health and helping to build more innovative, sustainable and inclusive healthcare systems and communities.

“Our generation of doctors has to start advocating for building a more sustainable healthcare system that looks after all healthcare workers. We cannot safeguard the health of our patients if burnout is normalised and exhaustion is seen as a status symbol. We need to have more honest conversations about this issue and ways we can start creating change,” said Brown.

The documentary is supported by Atlantic Fellows based at Tekano, a fellowship programme of which the producer, Brown, is a graduate. It was funded as part of Brown’s social change initiative during the fellowship journey.

“This concept of doctors being more than human often [comes] from medical school. I remember being told that we were the cream of the crop. You are kind of seen as something that is above the level of human in terms of your capability and we are often told that this profession is based on self-sacrifice,” said Mbizvo.

Mbizvo said the pandemic had changed the narrative and shown the world that front-line workers are human.

“And seeing a lot of front-line workers contracting the virus, having to take time off work that then leads to an increased burden ... I think patients and our community, in general, are a lot more aware that there is a limited capacity that each individual has and that it is not right to constantly ask our healthcare workers to give of themselves,” she said.

On helping healthcare workers cope, a 28-year-old medical officer based in Johannesburg, Dr Brendan Savary, said they need to debrief together as colleagues.

“I think we are the only ones who really know what it is that we go through. Sometimes you can reach out for help to a psychologist and you can reach out to your family, friends, all of these are really good and helpful things to do, but sometimes even those people can’t necessarily understand the real work of what it feels to be very busy. Sometimes having that space to debrief with your colleagues it’s a very logical thing,” he said.

Savary said when operating in “this tunnel vision-like mindset” many things fall by the wayside, including “relationships, family, mental health [and], physical health”.

Dr Nickson Thompson, a 31-year-old emergency medicine doctor in Cape Town, said he has learnt to become very direct and expressive, and is not afraid to be emotional.

“I think if I had known that sooner, instead of the brave face and stoicism, I think I might have had internal progression quicker.

“These are not challenges that are 'un-addressable'. These are not lofty goals, we don’t want to change the system,” he said.

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