White Coat, Black Art

Why this doctor went public with her story of burnout

It took a crisis in her personal life to get Dr. Shelly Dev to admit that she was burned out. Now she's challenging other doctors to come forward with their experiences.
Shelly Dev (Submitted by Shelly Dev)

Originally published on Nov. 11, 2017. 

This segment was part of a compilation of programs for which White Coat, Black Art was awarded a Gracie Award from The Alliance for Women in Media Foundation in the public affairs category. 

Looking at Dr. Shelly Dev, you might think that she had it all.  She was a respected physician in an intensive care unit, married with two young kids, a superb teacher and a leader in Toronto's health-care system.

It took a crisis in her personal life to make Dev realize she was burned out — and it had been that way from her earliest days as a resident.  She recalls the feelings she had that made her feel like a bad doctor.

Feeling so distanced from the reasons behind why I actually became a doctor.- Shelly Dev

Studies show that close to half of Canada's doctors are burned out and the numbers are going up. 

In a recent survey by the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) one in four doctors reported signs of burnout.

The rates for nurses are just as bad, if not worse.

Research shows that burned-out health-care workers affect patient care. They're less attentive, they make more mistakes and they disrupt colleagues.

Less empathy for you means you take longer to recover from illness.

'I was so overwhelmed by grief'

I hated being the doctor in that situation so so much.- Shelly Dev

For Shelly Dev, it was the death of her father that forced her to acknowledge and then deal with her mental health crisis.

"When he died, I think I actually felt my heart break. I was so overwhelmed by grief at the reality of him dying," says Dev.

"A very good colleague of mine — a radiation oncologist — said to me, 'You never had the luxury of not knowing how this was going to turn out.' I hated being the doctor in that situation so so much."

Dev became terrified at the prospect of returning to the intensive care unit where she worked. She didn't know whether she could cope with seeing people struggle with the same situation that she went through with her father.

"I have pretty severe anxiety and it started manifesting as panic attacks," she says.

Dev's family doctor noticed something was wrong and prescribed anti-anxiety medication. She also worked through her grief with the help of a psychiatrist.

Dev wants other doctors to speak up and go public with their mental health struggles (Submitted by Dr. Shelly Dev)

Speaking out

Dev is now speaking out in an effort to help other doctors who are struggling with the burnout and anxiety that is so common in her profession.

She wants other doctors to speak up and go public with their mental health struggles, particularly those in upper ranks. She says it's up to them to set an example and talk about their personal struggles with burnout.

"Can you imagine how comforting it would be if there was a top-down dialogue about this?" says Dev.

"Can you imagine what the downstream effects would be if there was a healthy work environment for our providers? And what that would mean for the people they're taking care of?"


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