A meta-analysis of 43 existing studies, published in Psycho-Oncology, shows that a third of cancer doctors to be suffering from high levels of burnout with a quarter feeling stressed and having sleep problems and depression as they struggle with the burden of dealing with suffering patients and family and burgeoning workloads, with some resorting to alcohol or sedatives in order to cope.
The research included studies from 14 countries, including the UK, US, Brazil, Australia, Japan and France, carried out between 1990 and 2014. Despite differing health systems and workloads (for example, workloads tend to be lighter in the US than in the UK), the authors said the results were consistent. It highlights oncologists experiencing more frequent patient death than other specialities, that they mostly work in excess of 60 hours per week, that they remain on call outside their formal working hours and work in a profession where understaffing is a problem.
The authors, from the department of organisational psychology at Birkbeck, University of London, stress that patients are not at risk but urge doctors to be kinder to themselves.
One of the authors, Caroline Kamau, is reported in the Guardian as saying: “We don’t want the medical community to stigmatise distress in medical practice. A significant problem is doctors are afraid of admitting to these things. Of all the people they should be the most compassionate but they have had to soldier on and this leads to people feeling they may not be able to admit to it. Their feelings are a normal human reaction to the things doctors have to go through, particularly oncologists.”
They say that the solution to the problems highlighted by their study should come from within the oncology community in the shape of a peer-to-peer/mentor support network.
The study’s co-author Asta Medisauskaite said: “Occupational distress reduces career satisfaction, affects patient care and increases the chances of cancer doctors switching to another area of medicine. We want to highlight that improving workload and support for oncologists could improve patient care, reduce talent loss from the field of oncology, and could ultimately impact clinical outcomes for cancer patients.”