A record number of general practitioners in New Zealand are at risk of burnout, with the pressures of Covid-19 driving more away from the profession.
The Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners 2020 workforce survey shows almost half are thinking of leaving in the next ten years.
The findings released to 1 NEWS show of the more than 5000 GPs the college represents, around 14 per cent intended to retire within two years - up from eleven per cent in 2018. Forty-nine per cent said they would retire in the next ten years - up from 20 per cent in 2018.
College President Samantha Murton says that equates to around two and a half thousand doctors.
“What we have found is the burden of care has been really high, so there’s quite a few people who are finding that burden is really a bit too much.”
In South Auckland which has often been described as being the coalface of Covid-19, the pressures became clear when they lost one of their own.
Dr Joe Williams - a respected doctor within the Pacific communities - died from the virus in September 2020. He was 85.
Manurewa GP and ProCare Clinical Director Dr Allan Moffit says the death of one of their own “certainly scares the community”.
He says the virus was a risk, and general practitioners alongside nurses and other health professionals were all putting themselves at risk.
“That’s an added stress,” he says.
The stress further driving a GP exodus that he says has been going on for some time.
“The issue is something like Covid may just be the thing that tips the balance for GPs to decide, 'oh I’ve had enough of this it’s time to hang up and retire,'” he says.
And while he says many are of retirement age not all are.
“Some younger GPs have chosen to leave,” he says.
“General practice is a marvellous profession, but having said that it is also a very stressful occupation.
“And there’s not the pipeline of younger doctors coming through.”
The Royal New Zealand College of GPs believe more resigned in 2020 than previous years, with the added pressure of Covid-19 being the final straw for many.
Its survey findings showed the number of GPs at high risk of burnout is also at a record high 31 per cent in 2020, compared to 26 per cent in 2018.
At her lowest, former Marlborough GP Dr Megan Bailey was suicidal. The stress of working long hours and treating patients with increasingly complex needs took a toll.
“When I finally got to burnout I had lost my compassion for patients, and that really hurt. That stung because as the sort of doctor that I am, I genuinely care.”
But she says with little support for doctors; alongside a chronic doctor shortage it all became too much.
“I got to the point where I thought I was a hopeless doctor, a hopeless mother, a hopeless partner, a hopeless friend.
“I was at the point where I thought I was better off not being around.”
She reached out to colleagues, was reported to the Medical Council and labelled incompetent.
Bailey says it was the right thing for her colleagues to do. But says it was a difficult process to go through.
“It really hurt, because I had already recognised that I was burning out,” she says. “On top of already feeling that low, to have that come at you and to have essentially an investigation being made into who you are and how you function was pretty cutting.”
And while she says ultimately she learned a lot through the process and has come out stronger, she says there needs to be greater understanding of burnout among GPs.
“I can see the signs in my colleagues now,” she says.
“So [it’s important to] help people out, try to get people to realise and recognise it and take actions early.
“Stop before you get to the cliff."
Royal New Zealand College of GPs President Samantha Murton says it is important for there to be greater support in the system to enable doctors to manage better.
“We have to stop that flow of people retiring too soon and also try and bolster people coming through and make the job a whole lot more doable.”
The college is bringing the results of their survey to the Minister of Health, Andrew Little, on Friday March 12.
Little told 1 NEWS he is aware of the burden GPs are carrying.
“We are hugely grateful for the work they have been doing during the Covid response,” he says.
And he says there is a plan underway to do more to offer GPs financial support and professional development.
“Many GPs have told me the funding they get in fifteen minute blocks that assumes one person, one ailment is not credible. That does require us to look at the funding formula,” he says.
“I am committed to doing that, when we get into the health reforms, which we will embark on later this year.”
But until that happens, Dr Megan Bailey, who left for Australia disillusioned with the system in New Zealand, is unlikely to return.
“Would I like to come back? Absolutely, if the system gets a shakeup and changes. Will I come back now? No.”