SA doctors burning out at less than one per 100,000

The South African Society of Psychiatrists has warned that burnout in the medical profession is becoming a pervasive risk factor for patients and doctors, especially in state hospitals.

The country’s overworked medical professionals are at great risk of burnout, says the society’s former president, Professor Bernard Janse van Rensburg.

Some of the contributing factors included a heavy workload, long hours, isolation as a result of this, high expectations and professional pressure. Doctors are the least likely to call for help at the onset of burnout and other related health problems.

“Doctors and other medical professionals who are highly critical of others and tend to blame themselves for their own illnesses … are more at risk of major depression and other mental disorders that can lead to suicide,” said Van Rensburg.

“They tend to be reluctant to approach their colleagues for help. They also slip into risky coping mechanisms, such as alcohol and drugs, and isolate themselves from those who could support them – family, friends and their professional community,” he said.

Globally, doctors are 2.5 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population, while physician burnout is a leading cause of medical error.

In Gauteng alone, according to Democratic Alliance member of provincial legislature Jack Bloom, medical error had led to the provincial health department receiving more than R22 billion in negligence claims in the past 15 years.

One of the most common areas for fatal medical errors was in maternity. Between 2014 and 2017 nationally, more than 5,500 medical negligence claims were lodged.

It is estimated South Africa has less than one doctor per 1,000 patients.

This low doctor-to-patient ratio, coupled with the annual brain drain of medical professionals, means healthcare practitioners serve under tremendous pressure compared with countries with even larger populations.

In the field of psychiatry, the problem was even more pervasive.

“There are about 700 psychiatrists in the country, which translates to 1.3 per 100,000,” said Van Rensburg.


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