Fears of a mass exodus of hospital staff as doctors and nurses face burnout

A senior doctor has warned that Australians will soon no longer be able to assume that if they get sick there will be an ambulance, a hospital bed or a doctor to attend to them.

Last month Professor John Wilson resigned from a major Melbourne hospital after 30 years and told 7.30am he could no longer work in what he described as a “failing” system.

“It’s now at a stage where practitioners, not just in medicine, but also in nursing and allied health, are all asking, ‘Why am I doing this? It’s not really good for my health, and it can actually be dangerous,” he said.

The outgoing president of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians said a college survey found 87 per cent of doctors suffered from burnout, posing major risks to patient safety.

Professor John Wilson says that “doctors are crazy and exhausted”.(Provided: John Wilson)

“One of the things about healthcare in Australia is that it’s been taken for granted,” he said.

“You will pick up the phone and there will be an ambulance, there will be a doctor waiting in the hospital, there will be a bed for you. But that can’t happen anymore.

“Ambulances are ramped up, unable to unload at hospitals. Doctors are overwhelmed and running out. Beds are unavailable and wait times are increasing.

“We are not in a situation where it could get worse, it is worse now.

“The healthcare system we are working in right now is failing and the evidence of that is absolutely clear.”

“A Perfect Storm”

A smiling woman is sitting outside on a bench.
Hayley Chandler was concerned about the level of care she provided to patients because she was stretched “to the thinnest”.(ABC News: Shaun Kingma)

Sydney nurse Hayley Chandler recently made the difficult decision to leave the industry after working through the pandemic.

“You feel exhausted, you obviously bring those emotions home. [I was] tired of coming to work, sometimes very emotional at home,” she said at 7:30 a.m.

“And I also felt pretty bad talking to patients, that I felt like I wasn’t giving them the level of care I’d like to give them just because I was stretched to the thinnest.”

She is now studying law and thinks others will leave the industry unless something is done to address labor shortages and huge workloads.

A woman sits on a park bench with a small dog in her lap.
Hayley Chandler says there have always been problems in the system and COVID “has really shown what the systemic cracks are.”(ABC News)

“People will want to look for work elsewhere because they want to be supported enough at their workplace and feel safe at work,” she said.

“And that although there are challenges in every job, that the challenges are not daily…to the point that it causes this burnout and exhaustion.”

She said it was hard for people to keep going when there were no signs things were going to get better.

“I don’t see the end of the tunnel, that the resource will be able to compensate for the increase in demand,” she said.

“The problems were always there before COVID. However, COVID has really shown what the systemic fissures are.”

A woman walks down the hallway of a hospital.
Dr Sarah Whitelaw says she has never seen the health care system under so much stress.(Provided: Sarah Whitelaw)

Dr Sarah Whitelaw of the Australian Medical Association says the general public perception that the worst of the pandemic is over is wrong.

“I am an emergency physician and have worked in emergency medicine for over 20 years now,” she told 7:30 a.m.

“And unfortunately, like many of my colleagues, I have never seen the system under such stress across Australia as it is right now.”

Dr Whitelaw said a number of factors were putting unprecedented pressure on the system and those who work within it.

“We have this perfect storm of staffing shortages, increased demand that we knew was coming, and then also dramatically increased demand in terms of COVID and flu.”

Mental health fears

A woman in a surgical cap, mask and glasses works on a computer.
Dr. Sarah Whitelaw is concerned about the mental health of physicians.(Provided: Sarah Whitelaw)

The Australian Medical Association is concerned about the mental health of workers in a system under prolonged and growing strain.

Dr. Whitelaw says that even in the best of times, the stress of medicine has significant mental health implications for doctors.

“So the heightened stress that they’re facing right now, that the health systems that they’re working in are under, you can only imagine what that’s doing to their mental health,” she said.

A study of over 9,000 healthcare workers during the pandemic found that 57% of the workforce suffered from depression, almost 60% from anxiety and over 70% from moderate to severe burnout .

A woman wearing a college graduation cap and cape.
Dr. Tasha Port passed away in June 2020.(Supplied: Port Graeme)

Indrani Tharmanason knows the extreme consequences of the pressures facing healthcare workers.

Her daughter, Dr. Tasha Port, died by suicide in the first year of the pandemic.

Ms Tharmanason says that while she does not believe it was burnout that killed her daughter, who was a young third-year doctor, working conditions and the stigma surrounding mental illness exacerbated his depression.

“When you have long hours, nighttime chores, and also the social isolation that comes from not being able to easily plan a social life, that combination of factors are all risk factors for mental illness,” he said. she said at 7:30.

“We think the reason was that she felt she couldn’t get into the pediatric program, but if you had an environment that didn’t have all of these risk factors, worsening her mental health, would she have come to this point?”

A man and a woman stand arm in arm with their adult daughter.  All are smiling.
Dr Tasha Port, right, with her parents Graeme Port and Indrani Tharmanason.(Supplied: Port Graeme)

Ms Tharmanason said she wanted better mental health support, lighter workloads and a better health care system for those who care for us.

“I’m really sad, deeply sad, that she’s not here now. And I really want to talk about how we can change work environments to make the medical profession, which is supposed to be caring and compassionate, I I want him to be more caring and compassionate to his own community.”

In a statement, new federal health minister Mark Butler said he would work out the issues with state premiers.

7:30 a.m. contacted all state and territory health departments. Most acknowledged the severe pressures faced by their staff and detailed their plans to address labor shortages. All urged staff to access support services if they were having difficulty.

Watch this story at 7:30 p.m. tonight on ABC TV and ABC iview.

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