Blog

Imposter syndrome: Another COVID-19 side effect?

Monday May 25, 2020

Dr Megge Beacroft, Chair, AMA (WA) Doctors in Training Committee

COVID-19. A virus that has changed so much in the lives of so many. Lines at Centrelink. Shops and restaurants closed. Jobs, homes, lives lost. The public, many perhaps more directly affected by the consequences of COVID-19 than health workers, have shown an amazing level of support for their ‘healthcare frontline’. This has gone far beyond mere sentiment, and into the creation of Facebook pages dedicated to ‘adopting’ a healthcare worker, offers of free coffee, discounted meals, car hire and flights amongst other things.

So why does it make many of us feel false?

While watching videos online of colleagues in the US or Italy wearing garbage bags as gowns and Halloween masks for lack of appropriate PPE as they tend to patients in the corridors, has been genuinely terrifying for many healthcare workers, in reality, we have seen no such surge of patients – our terror has been mostly in the anticipation. Changing systems in a bureaucratic behemoth like the health department is certainly a struggle, and many have invested long hours to prepare us, yet the overwhelming wave of patients has not arrived. ED presentations, surgeries and hospital wards have been relatively quiet. Yet community support continues to surge.

I’m not saying life as a doctor in training is easy. Over the last six years, I have worked more than one stretch of >30 days in a row, more than one week of 90 hours+ and spent many nights catching snippets of sleep during busy on-calls in various hidey-holes across the hospitals.

Yet I, and many others, struggle with the ‘hero’ banner in the COVID context. We are more at risk from a car crash on the way home from work tired, or a methamphetamine-affected knife-wielding assailant in a hospital car park then from COVID. We work in a system chronically underfunded and understaffed. Understanding the limitations of the system in which we work would be far more valuable than any discounted product for personal gain.

The reality is, it is a privilege and an honour to work in medicine. The faith of our patients and their families is a gift we all struggle to accept. The trusting smile of a patient as they go off to sleep in theatre, that they let us cut, stab, shave and prod things that hurt, and ask the most intimate and pressing of questions is incredible.

The lives in our hands is something we struggle with daily. Do I know enough? Have a studied hard enough? Am I good enough at this? As we struggle to remember every eponymous clinical sign, fight against an insurmountable administrative burden and work to and beyond our physical limits, rather than feel heroic, many of us feel constantly inadequate.

Imposter syndrome is well known and documented in medicine. Many senior doctors would tell us it is a good sign. To continually strive to be better and learn more – and this is very true.

The reality is, this is exactly what we signed up for, and the least we can do to repay our patients’ trust in our abilities. Beyond this we have good, well paid and it would seem, recession proof jobs. A steady income. Purpose in a time of great uncertainty. We are now and will always be there for our community, but I somehow can’t quite shake the feeling that we are the lucky ones.