Doctor who exposed medicine's 'disgusting open secret' warns it's not over yet
Updated October 03, 2019 11:46:51
Three years ago a junior Australian doctor penned an anonymous article exposing the “rotten” underside of medical training.
- Junior doctor said systemic cultural problems lead to suicides
- Whistleblower has now outed herself and penned new book
- Alleges stress and “bottleneck of training” haven’t changed
It went viral, laying bare the level — and even methods — of suicide among stressed-out and overworked doctors.
And it outlined an ultra-competitive environment where junior doctors don’t speak out for fear of being seen as weak and are discouraged from claiming the many hours of overtime lest they “incur the wrath of hospital administrators, who have a stranglehold over their career prospects”.
Now, that doctor — Sonia Henry — is revealing her identity, and says not nearly enough has changed.
‘A disgusting open secret’
It was January 26, 2017 when Dr Henry published her op-ed that would sweep the medical fraternity and be shared more than 22,000 times and republished around the world.
Her opening lines alone were enough to demand the attention of peak bodies and hospital administrators.
“In the year it has taken for me to finish my medical residency as a junior doctor, two of my colleagues have killed themselves,” she wrote.
“I’ve read articles that refer to suicide amongst doctors as the profession’s ‘grubby little secret’, but I’d rather call it exactly how it is: the profession’s shameful and disgusting open secret.”
Dr Henry detailed the demands placed on junior doctors by their senior colleagues and a culture that expected perfection and wouldn’t tolerate someone who couldn’t deliver.
Support policies might be in place, but the reality was they were rarely used, she argued.
And when a colleague did die of suicide, Dr Henry said the whispers in the corridors confirmed her fears: there was no shock or confusion, but rather a deep-seated understanding.
“To be a good doctor, you must work harder, stay later, know more, and never falter,” she wrote.
“Weakness in medicine is a failing, and if you admit to struggling, the unspoken opinion (or often spoken) is that you simply couldn’t hack it.
“There is something rotten inside the medical profession that has been festering for a long time with no realistic cure.”
The article prompted an outpouring of support among the medical profession and a promise of change.
The then-Australian Medical Association NSW president, Brad Frankum, penned an open letter in response, expressing solidarity.
“Like all doctors, I wish I had the answers for you on why this happens and how to make it stop,” he wrote.
“The profession has been looking for these answers for decades.
“It is clear to me that provisions such as mandatory reporting are stopping doctors and students from accessing care, or are making them fearful of the consequences if they do require support.
“We have to change this because it is not making our doctors or our patients safer.”
‘Big changes haven’t taken place’
Dr Henry has now publicly outed herself as the author and is currently working as a GP registrar.
She has also written a new book, Going Under, that delves back into the life of a junior doctor and is dedicated to “all the doctors who have ever felt lost or alone inside a system that should care for you”.
It’s a fictionalised novel, but it is inspired by the very real events Dr Henry experienced.
“I think there are still a lot of systemic issues going on inside teaching hospitals in Australia that are impacting upon junior doctors and their mental wellbeing,” she told the ABC.
“I think some interventions are taking place in hospitals that are positive ones.
“On the ground, I suppose, has it really changed for doctors training at the moment? I don’t think big changes have taken place yet.
“I think there’s still much more scope for that to happen.”
There have been multiple studies done on the mental wellbeing of doctors in Australia, which paint a damning picture.
A 2013 Beyond Blue study found male doctors were at least 25 per cent more likely to die by suicide than the general population, and female doctors were up to twice as likely.
A trainee doctor in Sydney also recently wrote about the “four months of hell” working at a Sydney hospital; while others fear asking for help will stymy their ability to practise medicine.
Many hospitals do have dedicated support services to help doctors, and policies to address mental health needs.
Dr Henry doesn’t dispute this, but said the conditions that lead to the stress haven’t changed alongside them.
“I think now we’re much more inclined to have these discussions, which I think is a really positive thing,” she said.
“But I think for doctors on the ground training, I don’t know how much things have actually changed for them.
“The hours are still very long, there’s still the bottleneck of training spots, it’s still very stressful and very difficult.”
Still, Dr Henry said there were elements of her job that she loved, and her best friends were the ones she met doing her job.
And she sees her current role as a privilege.
“To have people, as soon as the door shuts, come in and tell you things about their life that otherwise you would never have an insight into — it is a real privilege and it’s humanity in action.
“And that’s what I’ve always loved about being a doctor … you really see the human side to people.”
First posted September 10, 2019 02:26:45