25 October 2011

Kenya: Cancer Heathcare Providers Suffer As Much As Patients

There is a commonly held misconception that healthcare workers see so much pain and death in the course of their careers that they become numb and insensitive, devoid of any emotions.

On the contrary, cancer care professionals who work daily with patients and families struggling through the devastating illness shoulder an agonising emotional burden.

Doctors and nurses often respond to patients who are experiencing intense pain or suffering with sad feelings of their own; but for many years they have struggled to conceal this by hiding behind professionalism.

Grief, futility, emotional exhaustion and guilt, are realities confronted by all who work with cancer patients. Cancer treatment is a long complex journey. Nurses and doctors forge close and long lasting relationships with patients during this journey.

The public rarely gets to know that behind the scenes, healthcare professionals often struggle with the need to undertake heroic interventions even when the patients have no realistic chance of cure.

This can be followed by a sense of failure and frustration when the patient's illness progresses.

Nurses have a higher emotional burden than doctors because of the very nature of their jobs. They provide most of the bedside care at the end of life.

They are at the frontlines of a war against pain, disfigurement, and death -- thus they are effectively the face of the healthcare system.

Nurses and doctors are only human. They can display tears, anger, distress, and poor judgment due to unexamined emotions.

The enormous demand on the time, energy and expertise of the few cancer care professionals in the country is such that they never get time to process their own sorrow.

Watching patients die every day because they can't afford chemotherapy and the government dragging its feet in addressing the cancer problem can adversely affect the emotional wellbeing of any caring professional.

It is not just the patients who will benefit when the government finally wakes up to the reality of cancer, cancer care professionals too will experience immense satisfaction, increased productivity, and peace of mind knowing every patient will get quality treatment.

There is also urgent need for healthcare institutions to have mechanisms through which professionals who take care of seriously sick and dying patients can be supported to avert burnout.

Makumi was the first African recipient of the Oncology Society (USA) International distinguished award for contribution to cancer care (2011).

He is the manager of the cancer programme at Aga Khan University, Nairobi. David.makumi@aku.edu

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