Helping the healers: Doctors' Health Advisory Service

Sarah Foster and Garry Walter from Doctors' Health Advisory Service

Everyone needs help sometime, and doctors aren’t immune!

Health problems, money worries and poor work conditions all create stress that destroys personal wellbeing and happiness.

Help is available. We talk to Ms Sarah Foster and Prof Garry Walter from the Doctors’ Health Advisory Service.

Q: What is the Doctors’ Health Advisory Service and what does it do?
The Doctors’ Health Advisory Service NSW (DHAS) is an independent, confidential service offering advice to doctors, medical students, their families and colleagues in NSW and the ACT. We have a 24-hour telephone service. Calls are triaged and callers are then contacted by the DHAS Medical Director or a senior social worker experienced in handling medical practitioners’ health problems. Extreme care is taken to maintain confidentiality and callers may remain anonymous. We provide support for medical practitioners across the course of medical careers, from students and junior doctors to those who are towards the end of their careers or who have retired.

The DHAS NSW also provides education and advocacy, as well as maintaining relationships with stakeholder organisations in the medical field.

Q: What types of issues do doctors need support with? 
A: Each caller’s problem is unique, but calls often relate to:

  • work-related stress and burnout
  • general advice
  • drug and alcohol problems
  • financial difficulties
  • anxiety, depression and other psychological problems
  • legal or ethical issues
  • relationship problems
  • physical impairment
  • assistance finding a GP or other health professional.

Q: What stops doctors from asking for help?
There are a number of reasons a doctor may not ask for help, including:

  • not knowing where to seek help or advice
  • perceived stigma surrounding doctors seeking help
  • fear of lack of confidentiality
  • mandatory reporting laws (or misunderstanding or misinterpretation of such laws)
  • perceived risk to career
  • inability to acknowledge an issue.

It is important to note the DHAS operates independently of all professional and registration bodies.

Q: Do you provide ongoing support for doctors?
We provide ongoing support and case management where required. However, depending on the nature of the call, referrals are made to GPs, other specialists, psychologists, medical defense organisations/legal professionals, and other professionals and/or appropriate organisations. Callers often have a number of conversations with DHAS and are always welcome to continue contact as needed.

Q: Have you noticed any trends in the issues doctors need help with?
Work-related stress is a consistent theme of callers to DHAS, particularly amongst doctors in training. The high demands of long hours combined with training requirements, job insecurity, and family pressures have seen an increase in calls. However, work-related stress is not restricted to junior doctors – doctors across the career span are presenting with the same problem, brought about by a range of issues.

Q: Can you provide an example of how you’ve helped a doctor and/or their family?
A junior hospital doctor contacted us about work-related stress and anxiety issues. The doctor was extremely distressed and could not sleep as a result of ongoing worries regarding their clinical work and exam preparation. We offered immediate advice and support to assist the doctor. Practical solutions were suggested and the advice gratefully received. The doctor felt supported and able to deal with the issues. It was agreed ongoing assistance would be beneficial, and information regarding psychological services and peer support was provided. Follow-up contact was later made to check the doctor’s wellbeing and to ascertain if we could be of further assistance.

Q: Where can doctors get more information? 
A: Visit our website for some excellent resources, or you can phone us on (02) 9437 6552.

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Work-related stress is a consistent theme of callers to DHAS