As a health practitioner, it’s embarrassing to have health issues

As a medical/health practitioner, it can often be embarrassing to admit that you have health issues.  It’s kind of like the plumber with the leaky tap.  Shouldn’t all their plumbing issues be sorted and in perfect working order?  Shouldn’t we have perfect health if we are the ones dishing out health advice to everyone else?

If you as a practitioner have some health challenges, then read on…….because you are not alone!  

Here’s the things I’ve noticed about medical and health practitioners and their health issues:

  1. It’s a paradox – often the thing that drives us towards becoming a health practitioner is an experience or history of personal health challenges.  It’s often that search for help, for understanding, for answers and solutions that creates a burning desire to help others. And then, that desire to help others continues to drive us to get the best for our patients, often resulting in working long hours, being emotionally invested in outcomes and basically putting other’s needs above our own…and the cycle continues.  Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) recognised burnout as a medical condition in its International Classification of Diseases (ICD) and RACGP President Dr Harry Nespolon believes burnout is common among GPs.   (2, 3).
  2. It’s complex – following the paradox in number 1, the health challenges we face are therefore often more complex.  They are multilayered and multifaceted, often with a long history, and therefore, complex to solve. We often don’t have medical conditions that fall into a normal and easy to solve category.  Medical/health professionals are not immune to chronic diseases and in fact, in some cases we have higher prevalence, however, what is often the issue is feelings of “burn out”, fatigue, tired but wired, combinations of anxiousness and depressive feelings, gut issues, headaches and hormonal issues.
  3. It’s valuable – sometimes the challenging nature of our own health quests can be the very thing that leads you to learn more about particular issues and then have more knowledge and experience to pass on to patients.  It would be nice to be able to learn without the pain, but, the difficulties make the lessons so much more valuable. Further to this, with personal experience and adopting of your own healthy lifestyle habits, you are probably more likely as a practitioner to recommend these to your patients.  A study published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine (1) showed a positive correlation with physicians who exercise being more likely to counsel their patients to exercise.  So in the odd ironies of life, the health challenges and therefore the lessons learnt make us “better” practitioners.

But all of this can be quite embarrassing to admit.  It might be newsworthy and “instagramable” if you’ve come out the other side and feel and look amazing.  When you’re on top of the mountain, it’s easy to shout out to everyone and tell them how great you feel, encouraging them to adopt your healthy lifestyle habits.  However, when you’re in it, and feel like crap, despite all the effort you’ve put in for yourself and your patients, its really hard.  You can feel like a fraud, and you can feel very ashamed of yourself.  

Despite this, a lot of practitioners tend to be so focused on getting their patients healthy and well, they put their own health down the bottom of the list.  The caring and nurturing nature that is inherent in most practitioners means that they are prepared to sacrifice themselves to keep up with the demands of their case load, to go above and beyond to find solutions and appropriate care.  It can be a lonely and tiresome existence.

While this is reality, it cannot be sustained and it’s certainly not a nice place for the practitioner to be in.  It might be ok to make small sacrifices for short term periods, but, when these sacrifices become the norm, the practitioner suffers….often in silence.

Some signs that you are looking after others really well but you’ve made some sacrifices in terms of your own health:

  1. You often don’t eat lunch when working. The demands of a busy practice or the drive to just keep going and get on top of your notes, research an anomoly you saw in a patient, follow up with colleagues, run to the bank/post office/kids school…….all means you just didn’t have time for lunch.  You thought about it, but it never happened.  Adrenaline has kept you going.
  2. You survive on coffee and other “pick me ups” to give you energy and focus. Especially first thing in the morning and the mid afternoon.  You cannot function without getting your caffeine hit in the morning and you definitely cannot focus if you can’t have a chocolate hit at about 2 or 3pm.
  3. You have a niggly pain in your back/neck/shoulder and it’s been there for quite some time…..but you have no time to get it treated.
  4. You are tired…..all the time.  But also you are wired.  Your brain is on fire, which may be a good thing in terms of your productivity, but in terms of sleeping and relaxation, it’s bad news.
  5. You struggle to switch off or relax without external assistance. This may come in the form of a wine glass, or an obsession to get to the gym or go for a long run. But you need it.  You just cannot switch off and relax with out it.

Does this sound like you?  As the famous and intelligent Albert Einstein said “problems can’t be solved on the same level of thinking as they were created”.  As LM practitioners, we really need to be looking after ourselves as well as we look after others, and furthermore, there really is no space for embarrassment or shame when it comes to admitting we need help and seeking it.  Remember, us and our health issues are a complex paradox! 

Just like the LM movement itself, where we are creating new ways of practice, maybe there is an opportunity to create some heartfelt and supportive care for each other as practitioners that can lead to sustainable health and therefore sustainable and thriving careers.  

This article has been written for the Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine (ASLM) by the documented original author. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the ASLM or its Board.

Jacqueline Edser is a qualified Occupational Therapist, Certified Lifestyle Medicine practitioner and offers Lifestyle Medicine Coaching

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