This article originally appeared in the November/December 2020 issue of the Ontario Medical Review magazine.
by Ryan Joyce
OMA Member Relations, Advocacy and Communications
An American emergency physician made headlines when she died by suicide last spring, reportedly due to unprecedented stresses brought on by COVID-19. Unfortunately tragic yet preventable incidents like this can also occur closer to home, across Canada and here in Ontario. The root causes have likely been exacerbated by the pandemic, making the topic of physician burnout more important than ever.
A 2018 study by the Canadian Medical Association found that nearly one-third of Canadian physicians reported being burned out or depressed. Physicians experience burnout in different ways and to varying levels of severity. Symptoms are characterized by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization or feelings of detachment, cynicism toward people and work, and a reduced sense of accomplishment.
The OMA established a Burnout Task Force in 2019 to address this priority issue by identifying contributing factors, collaborating and coordinating with stakeholders, developing system-level recommendations on preventive measures and advocating to the provincial government.
“Physician burnout is a complex and challenging issue, linked to system-level drivers and none of us is immune,” said chair of the task force, Dr. Mamta Gautam, a psychiatrist at the Ottawa Hospital who is a specialist in physician health and well-being. “I am proud of the work my colleagues and I have done so far to promote physician wellness, especially during a time of extraordinary strain on our profession.”
Several burnout initiatives — podcasts, surveys, text-messaging support and a toolkit — have been implemented or will be launched soon, including:
The Burnout Task Force has released three podcast episodes on physician wellness, particularly in the context of COVID-19.
In March 2020, the task force released its first survey, Physician Burnout Survey: Part 1 — Informing Burnout Solutions. The survey asked members to share their perspectives on contributing factors to burnout and any potential solutions. A second survey will be sent to members in early 2021, after nearly a year of physicians practising throughout the pandemic. Comparing the results of these two surveys will be critical as the task force works to develop system-level recommendations on burnout.
Using the findings of the burnout surveys, the task force is studying the key drivers of burnout and will make system-level recommendations, recognizing that physician burnout is a systemic issue rather than an individual one. This analysis will culminate in a white paper to be released in 2021.
The OMA recently launched a short-term intervention in which members receive weekly evidence-informed text messages that address mental health needs and promote wellness throughout the pandemic.
The project will last approximately three months, beginning with a baseline survey emailed to practising members and residents to collect information on well-being prior to the intervention. There will also be an endline survey. In between, members will receive weekly text pulse surveys to track progress, along with the weekly text messages. Members’ privacy is protected and members can opt out of receiving the texts by responding STOP at any time.
This project is not intended to replace the OMA Burnout Task Force’s overall mandate to address system-level issues involving burnout, but it is one way the OMA will directly and individually address members’ mental health needs throughout COVID-19.
A toolkit with resources to help physicians, residents and medical students manage and prevent burnout is under development. The toolkit will also include resources to support physician leaders in addressing burnout within their workplaces. It will be shared with members when it’s ready.
“We recognize the achievements to date are just the beginning and accomplishing a task of this magnitude will take time, but we have every reason to believe it is within reach,” said Dr. Gautam.