Canadian doctors were already struggling before latest staffing, demand pressures: survey

A survey of Canadian physicians shows an increase in depression, high burnout, and heavy workloads. Kier Junos speaks with a resident physician about the growing challenges on doctors in B.C.'s medical system.

New data shows just how much doctors were already struggling before this latest round of staffing shortages and health-care system pressures across Canada.

According to the results of the 2021 National Physician Health Survey by the Canadian Medical Association (CMA), 48 per cent of physicians polled screened positive for depression.

That figure was up from the 33 per cent reported in the last survey, in 2017.

The level of “despair” physicians reported feeling highlights the detrimental effect that ongoing staffing crunches and under-resourced health-care systems are having on those working the frontline. Most jurisdictions across the country are dealing with a shortage of doctors and nurses.

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“Every day, we hear physicians expressing despair at the state of our health system, the strain that all health workers are facing and the fact that our patients are suffering,” said CMA President Dr. Alika Lafontaine.

“Since this survey was completed, the strain on health workers has continued to grow with no signs of a break coming. Physicians need help and support so they can continue to provide quality care to patients.”

Meanwhile, the full results of the CMA’s 2021 National Physician Health Survey show 25 per cent of physicians and residents have experienced either severe or moderate anxiety.

Pressures are also having an effect on professional fulfillment, with 79 per cent of physicians and medical learners scoring low in the survey. The CMA says less than 60 per cent of respondents reported being “satisfied with their career in medicine.”

Preliminary results of the national survey were released in March of this year. At the time, the CMA said it showed more than half of respondents experienced “high levels of burnout,” while almost half were thinking about reducing their work hours over the next two years.

Doctors and other health workers have faced immense pressure over the past few years amid the COVID-19 pandemic. As demand increased in Canadian health systems, so did the pressure on physicians, nurses, and other professionals to provide care.

The 2021 health survey notes a number of factors have affected the health and wellness of those polled, with the pandemic only one such factor. Increased administrative work, a lack of “work-life integration,” bullying, and harassment at work have also been listed as contributing factors.

More than 4,000 people took part in the survey, up from the 3,000 CMA members who were polled in 2017, the CMA says.

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