Kiwi doctor’s war on burn-out

Despite his ground-breaking change to the modern day Hippocratic Oath, Dr Sam Hazledine knows he has only made the first incision in an operation to improve the wellbeing of doctors across the globe, Suzanne McFadden reports

He had been a doctor, an extreme skiing champion and a global thought-leader in the wellbeing of those in the medical profession. And yet Dr Sam Hazledine hadn’t been able to diagnose his own case of burn-out.

The lightbulb moment came while Hazledine was researching stress and exhaustion in doctors, in his historical endeavour to make an amendment to the worldwide doctor’s oath, the Declaration of Geneva - a mission finally accomplished in Chicago last month.

“I was doing one of the self-assessment quizzes, and I suddenly realised that was me!” he says. “I was very surprised; I just thought I was tired.

“I sure as heck should have seen it in myself, especially considering I’m a thought leader in this space.”

But plenty of good came from the discovery – not only for his own health, but for the future welfare of doctors. “It made me realise there are a lot of doctors who say ‘I’m not burnt out, I’m just working long hours’. It gave me a real insight into how insidiously it comes on, and also how hard it is to identify it in yourself without some form of objective tool,” the acclaimed entrepreneur and 2014 Blake Leader says.

“I get fanatical about things, about getting good outcomes, which is a real strength of mine. But I also needed to build in a pressure release valve – so I can build the pressure up, but then release it when I have to.”

So Hazledine, who lives in Queenstown, returned to his old love – extreme sport. He had been the national free-ski, extreme ski and skier-cross champion in 2003. Now he’s returned to downhill mountain-biking and bought himself a dirt bike.

“Just building that stuff back into my life is really important, for me to be me. It’s in alignment for myself,” he says. And it’s what he wants to see New Zealand doctors, and physicians around the world, doing as well.

After almost three years of petitioning and lobbying, Hazledine convinced the World Medical Association to amend the 60-year-old Declaration of Geneva – the vow made by doctors when they enter the medical profession.

It was as a junior doctor that Hazledine saw a quarter of New Zealand medical graduates leaving hospitals and clinics within three years of graduation.

With Hazledine’s new clause in the oath, all doctors will swear: "I will attend to my own health, wellbeing and abilities in order to provide care of the highest standard."

But Hazledine is well aware that his work - to combat these challenges in his profession, for the benefit of doctors, their patients and medical organisations alike - has only just begun.

“It’s now starting to become a mainstream idea. People are finally paying it lip service. There aren’t many organisations doing something tangible about it, but at least they are doing something. And to me that’s progress. Next I want to see them put their money with their mouth is and invest in the wellbeing of their doctors,” he says.

“It will come in time - this is a marathon not a sprint.”

Hazledine is prepared to go the distance. Through MedWorld, one of his three medical companies, he’s focusing on building strategies for individual doctors and organisations.

“For individual doctors, it’s about helping them to survive in a tough system. At organisation level, it’s helping to create situations where they don’t just build people up and spit them out. It’s irresponsible for organisations not to accept that the system is broken,” he says.

It was as a junior doctor that Hazledine saw a quarter of New Zealand medical graduates leaving hospitals and clinics within three years of graduation. Last year, the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists in New Zealand published a report that found 50 percent of public hospital specialists had high levels of fatigue and exhaustion.

Through MedWorld, Hazledine is partnering with medical colleges to introduce change. He’s creating coaching programmes, and an app “to bring wellbeing into doctor’s pockets”. Recently he was in Australia, running his one-day workshop, “Whole Life Health”, for the Australasian College of Emergency Medicine.

“We are yet to have a big organisation prepared to drive change. Major change raises the challenge of money, and there is a perceived delay in return on investment,” he says. “But I’m optimistic it will happen.”

Doctors in the United States are further ahead than their Kiwi counterparts in building solutions for their own wellbeing, Hazledine believes, but he knows that the profession in New Zealand wants to do something about it. “It’s not yet an important part of the curriculum in our medical schools, though it is starting to become part of the curriculum,” he says. “We’re starting to take the right steps.”

Hazledine has written a book, Medicine’s Four Minute Mile, guiding doctors to invest in their own health. “I did four years of research, including doctors who are thriving in the wellbeing space. It’s not just a how-to guide; I wanted it to teach through stories,” he says. “A lot of it is relevant to anyone who has a job that they’re really passionate about, and put a lot of time into.”

Not content with simply helping doctors to lead “exceptional lives”, Hazledine has also turned his attention to athletes. He’s a major shareholder in WeAreTenzing, an “holistic” athlete and talent management organisation, founded with broadcaster and former X Games inline skating star, Brooke Howard-Smith .

“It helps athletes and influencers define their purpose and do work that is meaningful to them, while putting in blocks to build a sustainable life beyond sport or fame,” says Hazledine. “If the achievement of your athletic goal is the pinnacle of your life, then you’ve got a pretty shitty long life after sport. The skills they learn can be applied to something else meaningful in life.”

For Hazledine, becoming a Blake Leader has been a “really meaningful” experience. “I’ve won a lot of business awards, and they’re great. But I really felt something different with this recognition. It was more of a ‘we’re counting on you to do something more meaningful’,” he says. He’s been more than happy to meet that challenge.

*The Sir Peter Blake Trust inspires and mobilises the next generation of Kiwi leaders, adventurers and environmentalists, by delivering programmes and experiences that continue Sir Peter’s legacy of leadership and environmental action.

Find out more about the Trust here.

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