High profile respiratory physician quits citing pandemic burnout


By Geir O'Rourke

16 May 2022

Professor John Wilson

A leading respiratory physician has quit Victoria’s public hospital system in protest at mounting staff burnout and deteriorating conditions after two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Professor John Wilson says he has grave concerns over the wellbeing of doctors and other staff in the state’s hospitals, saying standards are being compromised amid increased demand.

The outgoing RACP president and head of the CF service at Melbourne’s Alfred Health until his resignation a week ago, he had worked in the public system for 30 years.

He said he had been forced to step down to blow the whistle on the lack of resources and excessive expectations placed on individual doctors.

“This decision came out of frustration,” he told the recent RACP 2022 Congress.

“I love my patients and I love my team and don’t wish to move away from that, however we have been asked to commit to levels of care that we are unable to achieve.

“I held my breath for as long as I could but I’m sorry, someone had to make a stand.”

With the pandemic now in its third year, health worker fatigue and burnout were now reaching crisis levels, Professor Wilson said.

He pointed to figures from an RACP survey published in November 2021 showing 87% of members were concerned over the effect of burnout on their careers.

“That is outrageous. That should not be the case,” he said.

“These members of our college should be proud of the work they do, not having to think about burnout, about early retirement, resignation or moving into other positions.”

It followed the declaration of a Code Brown across the state earlier this year, with restrictions placed on staff leave and all non-urgent surgery suspended for almost a month.

Professor Wilson said ambulance ramping had also become a major issue due to the staff shortages and clogging of emergency departments.

“The hospital that I have worked in has worked its level best to provide top quality care given the conditions,” he said.

“But there are a number of constraints… which have meant that patients had to wait to get into hospital with serious illnesses. If they called an ambulance they were waiting for hours outside.

“My colleagues in emergency medicine say they are treating patients outside in ambulances. It’s unacceptable.”

Professor Wilson, who officially stepped down from the RACP presidency at its annual general meeting this month, stressed he was not planning to retire completely.

“Once our health professionals have had enough of the public system, they can just head off to work privately,” he added.

“I’m not doing that, I’m not moving to another job. I’m just really interested in improving the situation for those who remain in the public system.”

He also admitted he wasn’t sure whether he personally was burnt out and said that was part of the problem.

“If you don’t know when you’re burnt out, you could be working in a very dangerous situation,” he said.

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