cancer medics
Birkbeck psychology researchers say peer-to-peer support could help doctors cope with anxiety

Alarming numbers of cancer doctors experience high levels of burnout, stress, sleep problems and depression, with some resorting to alcohol or sedatives to cope, research suggests.

Meta-analysis of 43 existing studies, published on Friday in Psycho-Oncology, revealed that many oncologists were struggling with the burden of dealing with suffering patients, distressed relatives and heavy workloads. It found that a third of cancer doctors were suffering from high burnout, defined as high emotional exhaustion, and a quarter had mental health problems.

The authors, from the department of organisational psychology at Birkbeck, University of London, stressed that patients were not at risk but urged doctors to be kinder to themselves.

The research considered studies from 14 countries, including the UK, US, Brazil, Australia, Japan and France, carried out between 1990 and 2014. Despite differing health systems and workloads (for example, workloads tend to be lighter in the US than in the UK), the authors said the results were consistent.

The paper highlights the fact that oncologists experience more frequent patient death than do other specialities, that they mostly work in excess of 60 hours, that they remain on call outside their formal working hours and work in a profession where understaffing is a problem.

As the studies asked different questions, the responses varied in number. Ten different studies identified stress levels among oncologists varying between 42% and 69% from a total of 1,203 responses. The burnout question was answered by more than 2,000 oncologists across the studies, and almost 5,000 responses were gathered on mental illness.

Much smaller samples found that up to 30% of oncologists drank alcohol in a problematic way – generally defined in the studies in question as drinking four or more times a week – and up to 20% were said to take “hypnotic drugs” such as sedatives, or medication to relieve anxiety or insomnia, although the authors stressed that this was outside working hours.

They say that the solution to the problems highlighted by their study should come from within the oncology community in the shape of a peer-to-peer/mentor support network.

The study’s co-author Asta Medisauskaite said: “Occupational distress reduces career satisfaction, affects patient care and increases the chances of cancer doctors switching to another area of medicine. We want to highlight that improving workload and support for oncologists could improve patient care, reduce talent loss from the field of oncology, and could ultimately impact clinical outcomes for cancer patients.”

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