Fears of mass exodus of hospital workers as doctors and nurses face burnout

A senior doctor has warned Australians will soon no longer be able to assume that if they get sick there’ll be an ambulance, hospital bed or doctor to take care of them.

Last month, Professor John Wilson resigned from a major Melbourne hospital after 30 years, and told 7.30 he could no longer work in what he described as a “failing” system.

“It’s at a stage now where practitioners, not only in medicine but also in nursing and allied health, are all thinking, ‘Why am I doing this? It’s not actually good for my health, and may in fact be dangerous,'” he said.

The outgoing president of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians said a survey by the college had found 87 per cent of doctors were experiencing burnout, and that had major risks for patient safety.

“One of the things about healthcare in Australia has been that it has been taken for granted,” he said.

“You’ll pick up the phone and there’ll be an ambulance, there’ll be a doctor waiting at the hospital, there’ll be a bed for you. But that can’t happen any more.

“Ambulances are ramped up, not able to unload at the hospitals. Doctors are run off their feet and getting burned out. Beds are not available and waiting times are growing.

“We’re not in a situation where this could get worse, it is worse now.

“The healthcare system that we’re working in at the moment now is failing and the evidence of that is absolutely clear.”

Sydney nurse Hayley Chandler recently made the difficult decision to leave the industry after working throughout the pandemic.

“Feeling burnt out, you obviously bring those emotions home. [I was] tired coming to work, very emotional at home sometimes,” she told 7.30.

“And I also felt quite bad in talking to patients, that I felt that I wasn’t giving them the level of care that I would like to give just simply because I was stretched to my absolute thinnest.”

She’s now studying law and believes others will leave the industry unless something is done to fix workforce shortages and huge workloads.

“People are going to want to look for work elsewhere because they’re going to want to be adequately supported within their workplace and feel as though they’re safe at work,” she said.

“And that although there are challenges to meet in every job, that the challenges are not daily… to the point that it does cause that burnout and exhaustion.”

She said it was difficult for people to keep going when there was no sign things were likely to improve.

“I can’t see the end of the tunnel, that the resource is being able to compensate for the increased demand,” she said.

“The issues have always been there before COVID. However, COVID has really shown what the cracks are systemically.”

The Australian Medical Association’s Dr Sarah Whitelaw says the perception the general public have that the worst of the pandemic is over, is misguided.

“I’m an emergency medicine physician and I’ve been working in emergency medicine for well over 20 years now,” she told 7.30.

“And unfortunately, like many of my colleagues, I’ve never seen the system under as much stress right across Australia as it is right now.”

Dr Whitelaw said there were a number of factors putting unprecedented pressure on the system and those who worked within it.

“We’ve got this perfect storm of staff shortages, increased demand that we knew was going to come, and then also significantly increased demand in terms of COVID and flu.”

The Australian Medical Association is worried about the mental health of workers in a system under prolonged and increasing strain.

Dr Whitelaw says even at the best of times, the stresses of medicine have significant implications for the mental health of doctors.

“So the increased stresses that they are facing at the moment, that the health systems they work in are under, you can only imagine what that’s doing to their mental health,” she said.

A study of over 9,000 healthcare workers during the pandemic found 57 per cent of the workforce was struggling with depression, almost 60 per cent with anxiety and over 70 per cent with moderate to severe burnout.

Indrani Tharmanason knows the extreme consequences of the pressures healthcare workers face.

Her daughter, Dr Tasha Port, died by suicide in the first year of the pandemic.

Ms Tharmanason says while she doesn’t believe it was burnout that killed her daughter, who was a third-year junior doctor, the working conditions and stigma around mental illness exacerbated her depression.

“When you have long hours, the night duties and also the social isolation that arises because you can’t plan a social life easily, that combination of things are all risk factors for mental illness,” she told 7.30.

“We believe the reason was that she felt she couldn’t get into the paediatric program, but if you had an environment that didn’t have all those risk factors, worsening her mental health, would she have got to that point?”

Ms Tharmanason said she wants greater mental health support, lighter workloads and for the healthcare system to better care for those who care for us.

“I’m really sad, deeply sad, that she’s not here now. And I really do want to talk about how we can change working environments to make the profession of medicine, which is supposed to be caring and compassionate, I want it to be more caring and compassionate for its own community.”

In a statement, the new federal Health Minister Mark Butler said he would work through the issues with state premiers.

7.30 reached out to all state and territory health departments. Most acknowledged the serious pressure their staff were under and detailed their plans to address workforce shortages. All urged staff to access support services if they were struggling.