Female doctors battle a higher burn-out rate

One afternoon, while attending to patients, 42-year-old Dr. Terenzi started to feel dizzy, had trouble keeping her balance and felt numbness in her face and body.

Even though she sensed what was happening to her, she decided to ignore her symptoms and finished seeing her last 10 patients. She took some aspirin, which helped delay her stroke temporarily. She then admitted herself to hospital.

According to a 2003 questionnaire by the Canadian Medical Association (CMA), one out of every two Canadian physicians was found to be in advanced stages of burnout. Over half of these cases were found in female physicians.

Dr. Raju Hajela, chair of the Ontario Medical Association’s Physician Health Program said that physicians are overachievers: “Mainly because doctors have a need to control and (have) high expectations (for) themselves and their families,” she said.

Not taking their own advice

Female physicians are not taking their own advice. Dr. Terenzi has been living a dual life, trying to maintain a home life and a successful career. She faced stress for a while, and like many female physicians she has tried to balance her career and the want to be there for her two children and husband.

“For me the stress factors are that you want to be a good mom and a good wife and you want to be a good physician, and it is very difficult to do that all at once,” she said.

“They (patients) want you available all of the time … There are a lot of demands on your time.” Dr. Mauro, Terenzi’s husband, a chiropractor who also has a practice in the Thistlewood Centre, has seen his wife’s health deteriorate right before his eyes.

He has merged his practice with hers and he now works in the same office in order to be closer to her. Despite this effort, colleagues still tell her that she can be a great mother, or a great doctor, but she can’t be both.

According to the CMA, physicians are less likely to see a physician themselves. Among some of the other groups at risk of burnout are: medical students, residents and interns, women in medicine, rural physicians, minority group physicians, physicians with disabilities and physicians with families.

For Dr. Terenzi, time off, is more time to feel guilty about not being there for her patients. “I used to feel like I inconvenienced people (when absent from the office),” she said.

They must be sicker than I am

“They must be sick, sicker than I am, so just suck it up and be there. The only time that I take anytime off is when my children are sick. I believe that there are other doctors out there that can help them (patients); my children only have one mother.”

A few years prior to her stroke, Dr. Terenzi underwent abdominal surgery. She was told to stay home for a few months after her surgery in order to recover. She had two abdominal drains attached to her hips to drain her wounds.

But, not even a stroke could keep the doctor away from her patients.  She said that their demands came before her health.

“They don’t care if you have a family as they do.  They believe that as a physician you have a duty to be ready and present when they need you. It is that kind of attitude that makes it even more stressful for me.  People are people, they want what they want.”