Lack of peer support forces docs to hide illnesses

Doctors who take time off for ill health suffer from guilt and shame. What's worse, they don't get support from peers once they are back at work, concludes new research in the online journal BMJ Open.

Interviews with 19 doctors who took off work for more than six months for drug, alcohol, physical or mental health problems revealed that illness "shattered" their professional identity, according to a related article published by the BMJ Group. In fact, one doctor said it was like having "everything taken from you."

They also said they felt "judged" and were perceived as "weak." Such reactions prompted several physicians to hide their illness and its treatment, the article noted.

"We're meant to be caring people, but we don't seem to care about each other at all, in my experience," one interviewee said about the lack of support from other doctors.

The researchers call for an updated curriculum that includes aspects of personal and colleague health, especially mental health, according to the article. That will help future doctors acknowledge their own vulnerabilities, as well as help them deal with their and their colleagues' illnesses.

"Doctors must learn to provide themselves and their colleagues with the same level of excellent care that they provide for their patients," they wrote.

The findings reinforce concerns that despite knowing the risks of spreading infection to patients and colleagues, physician presenteeism is still a problem.

Resident physicians showed up sick primarily due to obligation to colleagues (57 percent), followed by obligation to patient care (56 percent), according to research published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

However, only 12 percent of these 150 surveyed residents worked while ill because they worried colleagues would think they were "weak."

To learn more:
- read the study abstract
- here's the BMJ Group article