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New data says physician burnout doubled during COVID-19 pandemic


Physician burnout has been a real problem for the Canadian health care system for a long time, but the problem has gotten much worse during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A new report from the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) found doctors were battered during the COVID-19 pandemic. A survey conducted in November 2021 found 53 per cent are experiencing levels of burnout, compared to 30 per cent in 2017.

Nearly half (46 per cent) of Canadian doctors are considering reducing their clinical work in the next 24 months.

"I think the findings of our study are really concerning," said Dr. Katharine Smart, CMA president.

"It's really trending in the wrong direction and what was equally concerning was seeing almost half of doctors consider cutting back their work hours."

Smart calls COVID-19 the "pressure cooker" for a system that was already overwhelmed.

"In the hospital context, it's been people trying to deal with COVID and in the community setting it's been trying to pivot to virtual care, making sure patients get their needs met and having your patients on very long waitlists to see specialists or diagnostic imaging," she said.

As a result, Smart said doctors don't see that light at the end of the tunnel – or an end to the increased workload they've been experiencing.

The data was released following an emergency meeting of close to 40 national and provincial health organizations, including Canada's health workforce.

CTV News reached out to Health Minister Christine Elliott's office for comment. We received an emailed statement that said, in part:

"We are working with sector partners to recruit and retain health care professionals. Since March 2020, the government has launched emergency programs that have already added over 8,450 health care professionals to the system.

"In response to the pandemic, in 2020-21 the government also invested up to $194 in one-time emergency funding, including emergency funding for frontline health care workers experiencing anxiety, burnout or post-traumatic stress disorder.

"We will continue to work with our health care partners so physicians have the support their need."

Hearing that doctors are on the verge of burnout doesn't come as a surprise to Nickel Belt MPP France Gélinas, who is also the NDP health critic.

"The pandemic has taken a very heavy toll on the resiliency of our medical personnel, our medical staff everywhere. That includes in northern Ontario where we already have many other challenges," she said.

Several communities have reported doctor shortages. Earlier this week, MPP Michael Mantha raised the alarm about a shortage of physicians along the North Shore, particularly in the community of Thessalon.

"Whether you talk about the big centres, North Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury, Timmins, every single one of those hospitals have vacancies by the dozens for physicians and manpower," Gélinas said.

Problem worse in smaller communities

"As soon as you go a little smaller -- Espanola, Iroquois Falls, Smooth Rock Falls -- they're in a worse position than in the big centres. And as soon as you go outside of this into smaller areas, Foleyet, Gogama, then the situation becomes dire."

Recent figures from the Ontario Medical Association found northern Ontario is short about 300 doctors.

Retired emergency room physician Dr. Peter Zalan also wasn't surprised to hear some of the numbers. Zalan, who retired before the pandemic, said his former colleagues are telling him it's been a lot to balance.

"Between working harder, making less money, getting infected and taking it home to your family, I think that's a lot of issues," he told CTV News.

Fearing physician burnout is becoming a problem that continues to grow out of control, the Northern Ontario School of Medicine has launched its own peer-to-peer program for faculty.

"It always doesn't require a clinician, a therapist or a psychiatrist -- the peer support to me is first line, on the ground, you know," said NOSM's Dr. Diane Whitney.

"To say we're all going through this together."

Whitney said they've put together a program for residents, as well.

"People are trying to cope or cut back, whether that's fully been the answer and people also haven't had vacations for two to three years," she said.

"What physicians use to balance their lives hasn't fully been there."

The CMA said more needs to be done to address the workforce as the Canadian provinces look to rebuild health care.

The survey was open for five weeks and received more than 4,000 responses from Canadian doctors. A report in more detail is expected to be published later in the year. Top Stories

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