Why self-compassion is vital for medical professionals

By Dr Olivia Ong*
Friday, 08 October, 2021

Why self-compassion is vital for medical professionals

It was a sunny autumn day in April 2020 when the reality of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic was starting to hit home in Australia. I had just eaten breakfast with my family when the news reported on an emergency physician from New York State who had jumped off the roof of the hospital she was working in. My heart sunk for the doctor and her loved ones as I reflected on the fact that this could have been me.

Eighteen months later, COVID hasn’t gone away. It has affected us in so many ways. Some of us have lost loved ones. Others have lost jobs or businesses. The politicians are talking about their roadmaps to economic recovery. But it strikes me that very little is being said about emotional recovery.

My particular focus is on the wellbeing of doctors. The question of who is caring for the carers is top of mind for me. The truth of it is that physician burnout was at epidemic proportions before the COVID-19 pandemic. According to research presented at the 2018 American Psychiatric Association Meeting, 400 physicians die by suicide each year in the US. This is double the rate of the general population. In fact, doctors have the highest suicide rate of any profession in the US — including combat veterans.

The pandemic has exposed the cracks in the healthcare systems around the world. From inadequate testing and personal protective equipment (PPE) to overcrowded emergency departments, frontline staff are putting their lives at risk to care for highly infectious patients. Regardless of the fact that the odds are stacked against them, medical professionals are responding to the crisis with characteristic selflessness, resilience and compassion. It strikes me as profoundly unfair, not to mention strategically unwise, for the people who are being relied on so much to be left to suffer in silence — to the point where jumping off a building looks like the best option.

For many physicians, COVID-19 was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Being isolated physically from family and friends, and overwhelmed by the surge of sickness and death they face on a daily basis, means that depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and secondary trauma are reaching levels that have never been seen before. They are burnt out.

Imagine if these medical professionals can use self-compassion so that they can heal and recover from burnout so that they can thrive at work and at home?

There are three pillars to self-compassion — mindfulness, common humanity and self-kindness. Self-compassion entails acknowledging that we are suffering (mindfulness), that we are all in it together (common humanity) and that we need to love and be kind to ourselves (self-kindness) before we can really do the same for others. I found a place of peace and power within myself through self-compassion. I believe that creating a ripple effect from self-compassion is the best way forward for us as a collective.

Medicine is a calling for most doctors — but is it worth dying for? I don’t think so. The way I see it, we all have a role to play in stemming the tide of physician burnout and suicide. The time has come to reaffirm the humanity of doctors and acknowledge their value to society. Medical culture and the healthcare system both need to change — that’s the bottom line. Doctors must first acknowledge, and then heal, their pain and suffering with self-compassion. They have to do this for their own sake first and then for the sake of their patients and communities.

I have learnt self-compassion that helped me find my way back home to my heart. My mission is to arm doctors and other medical professionals with the tools they need to tap into the heart-centredness of medicine.

Doctors can practise self-compassion by acknowledging their suffering with burnout, connecting with people around them and themselves by asking for help when close to burnout or when they are already there and most importantly, they accept themselves for their imperfections and being kind towards themselves. The sooner the doctors can learn self-compassion, the sooner they can heal themselves.

*Dr Olivia Ong, author of The Heart-Centeredness of Medicine, is a resilience leadership consultant, life and business coach for doctors, and established pain physician. She is a keynote speaker on physician burnout prevention and runs programs helping doctors transform their lives from burnout to brilliance.

Top image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/thatinchan

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