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Compassion fatigue amongst doctors

27 April 2005

Study investigates prevalence of compassion fatigue amongst doctors

A study is about to be launched by researchers at The University of Auckland’s School of Population Health to determine the prevalence of ‘compassion fatigue’ in young doctors in New Zealand.

Up to 1200 young doctors working in district health boards in the upper North Island will be invited to take part in the study being carried out by Peter Huggard, a senior lecturer in the Department of General Practice and Primary Health Care at the School of Population Health.

Doctors and other health care professionals may experience compassion fatigue as a result of continued exposure to the traumatic events their patients experience. Also called secondary traumatic stress or vicarious traumatisation, the result can be a falling off in professional capabilities, emotional exhaustion, distress and burnout.

This may be a particular problem for health professionals caring for patients with terminal conditions such as cancer. However, it can be experienced by anyone working in the “helping professions” including non-professional caregivers.

Mr Huggard says the study of the emotional effects on those caring for traumatised people is a relatively new area of research. He wants to learn of doctors’ experiences with compassion fatigue, and determine if there may be training interventions that enhance the development of coping skills.

“To date there has been very little research in New Zealand, and elsewhere, to see how this phenomenon affects our doctors.. “By establishing what its effects are and what coping mechanisms doctors use who do not experience compassion fatigue, we may identify new training programmes for medical students, so our young doctors are better equipped to deal with it,” he says.

Mr Huggard says that he has already had feedback from senior doctors in New Zealand who have indicated the phenomenon is an issue that needs addressing.

“Compassion fatigue is an occupational stress that anyone in caring and emergency professions can experience, and over the last decade there has been an increasing recognition for the need to develop ways to care for our carers.

”It appears that some doctors may try to avoid experiencing compassion fatigue by remaining emotionally detached from their patients. However overseas research has shown that remaining detached can still lead to stress and emotional exhaustion, and that doctors who show empathy with their patients give better levels of care.”


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