When I graduated, the culture of medicine was such that to not cope, to not know something, to struggle, was a sign of weakness. Not much has changed since then. Dr Samantha King, Medical Adviser at Medical Protection, asks if dentistry is any different
I recall the first few months of being a shiny new house officer, shortly after I graduated from Otago Medical School in New Zealand. I went from being a student in a fairly small hospital in Dunedin to a very large hospital as a new graduate in South Auckland.
Auckland’s population is ten times the population of Dunedin (Auckland is still small by Australian standards, but work with me here!) and I was on-call the first day of work. I started running that day and this didn’t slow down for at least six months. As junior doctors, no-one admitted to any sense of not coping; I certainly didn’t. But the stress made itself known in my physical health. Can you relate?
Are you a ‘super dentist’?
The tendency to be a ‘super doctor’ is very prevalent. To illustrate this point, let me tell you about a recent case of mine. Dr S worked full-time in a very busy practice and is very competent and hardworking, with high standards about the level of care they provide. Over a two-year period, Dr S’s business relationships became strained.
Dr S then suffered the bereavement of a close family member and the breakup of a long-term relationship. The majority of the care for their children fell to Dr S. In addition, Dr S’s situation was further stretched by an unexpected health concern. Despite their circumstances, Dr S tried to plough on until, one day, the wheels fell off: the health concern was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The details may vary, but at different times we are all subject to difficult life circumstances.
High burnout rates among dentists
Healthcare providers work in an increasingly resource-constrained environment. In addition, The Dental Council, along with other complaint authorities and our patients, have rising expectations of the standard of care we provide. The number of complaints and legal claims against dentists in New Zealand is creeping up with no sign of abating. Considering these factors, it is understandable that burnout has become increasingly recognised as a common issue around the globe among healthcare workers. The dental profession is no exception, where burnout rates are similar to other health practitioners, with around 50% of all dentists suffering burnout globally.
Are you susceptible to burnout?
Are some people more susceptible to burnout than others? Research suggests this is so. The very traits that helped you get into dentistry have perhaps made you more likely to become burnt out. This quote refers to medical graduates but is equally applicable to dental graduates:
“There are well-defined character traits which predict doctors’ future risk of job dissatisfaction, burnout and psychological distress. These include introversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, and low self-esteem; these traits have a positive correlation with high pure IQ, are well represented in entrants to medical school, and help their owners pass exams. Similarly, there are well-defined trait characteristics for resilience, including extraversion, gregariousness, positive self-regard, assertiveness, playfulness and ability to form interpersonal relationships. Unfortunately, these traits are associated with a high early exam failure rate.
Ironic isn’t it?
Help is on the way
In response to this increasingly well-recognised issue, Dental Protection has released a very timely workshop: Building Resilience and Avoiding Burnout. I have presented this workshop to members in New Zealand and it has been incredibly well-received.
This workshop takes a very practical look at resilience and burnout, providing opportunities for the ‘aha’ moment. The workshop also provides tools and strategies – both to build your resilience, making burnout less likely, and to help you to recover if you are on the slippery slope. For many members, the workshop has given them permission to think about themselves, consider their own health and, in some cases, find opportunities to make a timely change.
Whilst attending this workshop, all the lights went on for Dr S, who recognised that they were burnt out and immediately made some changes to their work situation. Unfortunately, the unrecognised burnout had already impacted patient care and Dr S was notified to the regulator by concerned colleagues. The good news is that Dr S is making a good recovery and is now steadily returning to full health.
 Clark S, From burnout to resilience: a general practice perspective, NZMed J, 26;124(1341):76-9 Aug (2011