Covid And Physician Burnout

A few days ago, a colleague asked me whatever happened to all of my blog posts on physician burnout and suicide. I had no immediate answer to the question. Strange. I must have written fifteen or twenty posts on those topics over time, but they had largely dried up over the course of 2020. Like so many newscasters, I had become so tied up with my observations about the pandemic that terms  like “physician burnout” and “physician suicide” had largely, make that totally, disappeared from my posts.

I need to correct that here and now. Check this out. What you will see  is a fascinating and in depth ABC story of the impact of the pandemic on front line physicians. There are several important things to note.  

First, the causes of physician burnout and suicide have changed during the pandemic.  In the “good old days,” they were caused by annoying, but relatively benign, things like having too much administrative paperwork to deal with. Not anymore. Now they are caused by:

  • Amazingly intense and long work weeks. I had a conversation with an Infectious Disease Specialist in December who told me that the day after we talked would be her first day off in 2020.
  • The unique horror of having to hold the iPad of patients who were saying goodbye to their relatives who weren’t allowed to be with them at the end. Or of holding their hands after the conversations.  
  • The traumatizing experience, typically several times each day, of having to tell someone over the phone that their loved one has just succumbed to COVID-19.
  • The fear of carrying the infection home to their beloved families.
  • Etc.

Yes, physician burnout, anxiety, depression and suicide are indeed on the rise, and changing in their causation and depth, resulting from a year long period of physicians experiencing threat induced hyperarousal without the fight or flight possibilities that are supposed to be available under such circumstances.  

Bottom Line. Complicating all of this is physician “stoicism.” The training of physicians that they should not appear to be cracking under pressure. The result? They just crack internally.  

The solution? There is none really. But palliation can be obtained through compassionate support. You can see this balm being applied in pictures like the one above. Hugs, yes risky hugs, are about all the compassion that front line physicians (and nurses, and respiratory therapists, and…) have time for during these days of the pandemic.  

God bless them all!

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