Caring for NHS staff needs to be a national priority – Dr Lewis Morrison

Doctors sometimes avoid seeking help, particularly for mental health issues, because it can be hard to do so confidentially, writes Dr Lewis Morrison.

Some doctors feel awkward about seeking medical help (Picture: Ian Georgeson)
Some doctors feel awkward about seeking medical help (Picture: Ian Georgeson)

This week the Scottish Government announced its plans to develop a dedicated workforce specialist service for healthcare workers – in short that means a mental health service for those who work within the health and care sector.

This is something that has been needed for a long time. We at BMA Scotland have pursued a dedicated health service for doctors in Scotland for a number of years, and these past few months have shown us that we must never take our NHS workers for granted – when they become unwell, we must ensure that they have access to the care they need to help them recover and return to their vital roles as soon as possible.

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As much as we like to think we’re indestructible, we have to admit to ourselves that we are not. That’s why it’s so important for healthcare workers to have somewhere they can go for confidential advice and mental health support if and when they need it.

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It can often be difficult for doctors, and other healthcare workers, to access healthcare completely confidentially – for example if they need to attend an appointment, whether in a primary or secondary care setting, it is highly likely they will meet someone they know, perhaps even some of their own patients and as such it’s tricky for them to maintain a level of anonymity in a GP or hospital waiting room.

There is evidence that the lack of anonymity deters some healthcare workers from seeking medical advice at all – particularly if it is a mental health issue – so this specialist service will be vital. There can rarely have been a more important time for a service like this, due to the serious toll the last few months will have had on the health and care workforce, and with a potentially hugely challenging winter just around the corner this announcement hasn’t come a moment too soon.

Many of you won’t forgive me for talking about winter pressures when we’re not even done with the first week of September – but for NHS staff, winter never really stopped this year. We went from a particularly harsh and difficult winter season straight into a global pandemic; something most – if not all – of us have never dealt with before in our careers. There was no time to recover and recuperate ahead of the next winter which is now, as I’ve said above, just around the corner.

Like many people across Scotland, most health care workers haven’t taken proper annual leave this summer – and by that I mean an extended break of two or three weeks. And everyone needs a break from work. Everyone needs the chance to rest and recover. Doctors, nurses, care workers – they are all exhausted and exhaustion can lead to mental health problems – so I would urge the Scottish Government to act fast on this specialist workforce service. We need this now. Not next year. Now.

I strongly believe that people become doctors to help others – it’s certainly why I chose a life in medicine. Whether we work in accident and emergency, general practice, paediatrics or oncology, as a doctor our main priority is patient care. And patients deserve the best possible care we can give them, which is why it is so important to remember that without well looked after staff, whose mental and physical health and well-being is at the forefront of workforce planning, the NHS cannot continue to work the way it currently does. Caring for doctors, and all other health and care staff, must be a national priority.

Dr Lewis Morrison is chair of BMA Scotland

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