Vasumathy Sivarajasingam is a GP in West London and an Honorary Clinical Research Fellow at Imperial College London. She is on Twitter: @vasu27765631
The recent Covid-19 pandemic, a global health crisis, has highlighted how resilient healthcare workers can be. They often put the nation in front of their family, friends and personal needs, worked collectively as a community and tried to provide the best possible care to patients. In the midst of it all, they had to remain positive and do their utmost to support the wellbeing of their colleagues and loved ones.
A healthy, resilient workforce is therefore vital for safe and effective patient care, and unsupported healthcare workers could lead to the failure of the NHS.
The job of a healthcare worker is to care for and support society. The NHS and social care workforce in England is committed to and accountable for the health and wellbeing of the nation’s population. Doctors and nurses are identified as the most trusted professionals in Britain,1 with GPs alone providing the first contact care to more than 1.2 million patients daily.2 A healthy, resilient workforce is therefore vital for safe and effective patient care, and unsupported healthcare workers could lead to the failure of the NHS.
Concerns have been raised about staff wellbeing, stress and burnout subsequent to the pandemic,3 due to the increased workforce pressures, responsibilities and staff shortages. The wellbeing of healthcare workers is vital as it is linked to staff retention. Therefore, it is essential that we support the welfare of this workforce at every opportunity. Unquestionably, there is a need to monitor the ‘health’ of these professionals, in order to have a sustainable compassionate healthcare system.
Data gathered over the last 20 years consistently shows about a third of doctors suffer from burnout at any one time globally, regardless of their speciality.4 The medical profession is intellectually demanding and involves complex decision making, regularly involving mentally, emotionally and psychologically challenging clinical encounters. The healthcare professional-patient relationship can be complex as highlighted by many studies since the 1950s.5
Furthermore, primary care teams are exposed to increasing workloads, high patient expectations, and litigation, leading to escalating levels of stress, burnout, and low morale. The experiences of doctors treating other doctors (in particular, those of general practitioners) have been analysed and documented: Some doctors felt rewarded while the experiences of others provoked emotional responses such as anxiety, awkwardness, self-doubt, the feeling of role ambiguity and difficulty in defining boundaries of the relationship.5
One could argue that that patients who are doctors should be treated just like other patients. However, doctors are often reluctant to seek medical advice, frequently fail to follow preventive health guidelines for their physical health, perhaps due to embarrassment, delusions of invincibility or simply inconvenience compounded by being so busy.6 About half of doctors do not have an established relationship with an independent general practitioner.6
This begs the questions: should there be preferential healthcare for healthcare workers at all times?
During the pandemic, the healthcare workforce was offered preferential treatment when buying food in supermarkets or receiving the vaccine; subsequently, healthcares team were able to provide better care for the patients. This begs the questions: should there be preferential healthcare for healthcare workers at all times? Could this encourage doctors to seek timely support from their registered GPs? Would this reduce burnout and ultimately reduce workforce crisis?
It is not unheard of for healthcare workers to receive preferential treatment over the general population, formally or informally. Preferential treatment, however, does raise many issues – who should be eligible, what should be provided, and is this as a way of keeping people working or thanking people for their service? For example, preferential treatment to healthcare workers that improves the wellbeing of this workforce arguably benefits the delivery of better quality patient care. This might have a domino effect in protecting the workforce and ultimately help sustain the long-term health of our profession.7
If we are attempting to tackle the continuous external pressures of regulatory bodies, escalation of the unmanageable workload and the added workforce crisis, we should work in collaboration; listen more, understand each other and support each other. It is essential that as healthcare workers, we support not just our co-workers in the workplace but widely. Together, we can continue to deliver a resourceful, high standard of care the patients deserve and ensure the sustainability of our healthcare system. We need a public conversation about whether improving healthcare workers access to healthcare is preferential or restorative.