Why I launched a service for stressed doctors
Dr Sara Khan explains why she decided to set up a not-for-profit service to help prevent GP burnout
Name Dr Sara Khan
Title GP partner and co-founder of Healing Doctors
Location Abbots Langley, Hertfordshire
I met my business partner, Dr Fleur Appleby-Deen, while we were studying medicine at Imperial College London. The course was stressful; we ate badly, hardly slept at times, and yet we couldn’t find any resources for trainee doctors about preparing for the stresses of a medical career. After we graduated, we noticed that although there were facilities and organisations that could help doctors if they burned out or became depressed, there wasn’t much for those who wanted to help prevent this.
So 18 months ago Fleur and I decided to start Healing Doctors, a not-for-profit social enterprise. Fleur had trained in nutrition and yoga and I had qualified as a GP, and so together we were equipped with skills to teach doctors holistically about how to deal with stress in their working lives. We now organise retreats and workshops that include yoga, mindfulness, help in managing stress and nutritional advice, using external speakers when necessary. I spend a session a week managing the business, plus weekends on the retreats. It took six months to set up Healing Doctors, and since then we have seen about 50 GPs seeking advice or attending workshops.
Why I chose the role
I decided to do this in addition to my other roles (GP partner, LMC vice-chair, CCG lead, editor of Medical Woman magazine) because I was seeing that doctors early on in their training were finding it difficult to cope with stress from their jobs. Lots of GPs of my age work part time or have portfolio careers.
I know quite a few young GPs who have left partnerships, having found them untenable. But in the more experienced generations, some doctors are still doing nine or 10 clinical sessions a week, and I expect there are many at risk of becoming burnt out.
General practice has changed so much in the last 10 or 20 years, and not just because partners no longer work out of hours. The workload is much more complex, there has been a huge increase in paperwork and bureaucracy, and much work has shifted into the community.
While a certain amount of stress is inevitable in this vocation, there are tools such as mindfulness that one can use to help tackle it, and it’s better to deal with the problems than soldier on.
Fleur and I feel strongly that medical school curriculums need to teach students the importance of looking after themselves while being diligent doctors – something we learned the hard way. Considering the importance of lifestyle choices in patients with chronic diseases, it seems illogical that GPs don’t know more about managing stress.
My work with Healing Doctors is very different from all my other roles, and I have gained experience in areas that I knew nothing about such as building a website, formulating a marketing strategy and developing a client base. It has been rewarding to see doctors who have said we really helped them move forward and feel passion for their careers again. It’s been good for me too – it’s quite different from my clinical sessions, and as it’s a not-for-profit venture it feels like it’s really coming from the heart.
It has been difficult to establish ourselves without external funding. We also hope to form a network with other doctors and organisations who have similar aims – the project is a lot of work for two people.
Another challenge was that some doctors think of yoga and mindfulness as ‘hippy-dippy’. While all our clients have self-referred, the response from the profession as a whole hasn’t been entirely positive. However, we believe in our ethos and have had both doctors and other professionals praise our efforts.
The biggest challenge is working out how to tap into the population that isn’t willing to seek help or lacks awareness about burnout, but campaigns like Pulse’s help GPs to realise how common it is, and what resources are available to resolve stress-related issues.