I’ve seen colleagues go through clinical incidents – something where a patient has suffered – and it’s had such an impact on them, some even considered changing careers, leaving medicine. And what’s surprising is, it’s not uncommon.
When investigating an incident, the focus is often on the doctors involved, but there’s no real support offered to them. In my career I’ve been well supported but it’s all been informal – I’ve been lucky to have supportive people around me.
So when I witnessed people struggling, I wanted to help. I set up a support group in my trust, which was really popular and is still running now, but I wanted to take it further, so I got involved with the BMA peer support service.
People usually contact me through the service via text; I text them back and we arrange a call. We do offer video calls, but I find that if people have a difficult issue to discuss they prefer a normal phone call. That’s entirely up to them. We then chat through any issues. For some people that’s enough and they don’t feel they need any more calls; others want to discuss things further.
I’ve had calls from all sorts of people – from medical students to senior consultants. It can be because of career problems or personal relationships, and exam failures are pretty common. Sometimes it’s personal problems that are affecting their ability to work. If it’s something I can’t help with, I can signpost them to other support services and hopefully that enables them to move forward.
I once spoke to a student who was really struggling with their exams, and just being a medical student in general. After our conversations he went on to be successful in his exams; he’s now a doctor.
I’ve also spoken to a junior doctor who was struggling with exam failure; we’re still in touch and she’s gradually getting to where she needs to be. These struggles are fairly normal, but what’s unique is that they asked for support. I think a lot of medical students and doctors almost feel like it’s a weakness to ask for help – but it’s not.
What’s different about the BMA peer support service is that it’s really helpful to speak to someone who knows what you’re talking about; people within the medical profession understand the pressures you’re under. A counsellor will try to understand but they can’t offer the understanding that we can.
If you’re considering seeking help for a problem, give it a try. See what it’s like, just offloading to someone – people who understand the pressures of work. You might feel better after a conversation.
Emma Wheatley is a critical care and anaesthesia consultant and a BMA peer support doctor from Bolton