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Stigma prevents sick doctors from returning to work



The stigma felt by doctors who are signed off sick for long periods is a major obstacle to them returning to work, say psychiatrists.

A series of interviews with doctors who had been off for more than six-months found they had very negative views about themselves and felt unsupported and judged.

Many had experienced negative reactions to their illness and some had deliberately concealed problems they were having.

Being away from work left them isolated and sad and questioning their place in the world, the study found.

These ‘self-stigmatising’ views may come from a belief that doctors are ‘invincible’ and do not get sick, the team led by Dr Max Henderson, senior lecturer in epidemiological and occupational psychiatry at Kings College London said in BMJ Open.

Yet doctors are just as likely to have mental illness, or drug and alcohol problems but may fear accessing services because of concerns over confidentiality, the researchers said.

They interviewed 19 doctors who had a mix of physical and mental illness, and some had GMC involvement.

They called for a change in culture ‘from medical school onwards’ to allow doctors recognise their vulnerabilities.

The researchers concluded: ‘A greater willingness to accept the possibility that one might at some stage become a patient, together with greater input from trainers and senior colleagues as to how this might be managed, could reduce the sense of shock and bewilderment should illness strike.’

RCGP chair Dr Clare Gerada said doctors had that sense of invincibility because it helped them cope in a job where they were dealing with death and delivering devastating news.

She said: ‘What doctors need is a safe place, that is not their appraiser or trainer or mentor, but could be their own GP or a confidential stand alone service to seek help.’

She added that 67% of GPs who asked the college for help in returning to work were back within six months and that the RCGP ran courses to help this.