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Avoiding Physician Burnout From COVID-19

Tips for Healthcare Professionals to Decrease Stress During the Pandemic

You already know that many physicians experience burnout due to their chosen profession. We’ve covered in previous blogs how they report it at rates two times greater than non-physician working adults and that the issue costs the healthcare industry between $500,000-$1 million per doctor. In addition, it’s been directly linked to an array of problems, including decreased patient satisfaction and care quality, physician alcohol and drug abuse and addiction and high malpractice risk and physician and staff turnover. 

The COVID-19 pandemic in the United States is certainly doing nothing to quell the problem of burnout experienced by physicians and their staff members. Practices are overloaded with more calls and appointments than usual, and hospitals are filled to capacity. 

The glaring issue for the healthcare industry in this pandemic is that nurses, doctors and other medical professionals tasked with testing and treating patients infected with the new coronavirus are at a high risk of contracting it themselves. Roughly 3,300 healthcare workers in China were hit with the virus. In England, the country’s health ministry is attempting to address the shortage of healthcare professionals by asking 65,000 former physicians and nurses to return to work and utilizing final-year medical students. 

A newly published article in JAMA titled “Supporting the Health Care Workforce During the COVID-19 Global Epidemic” notes that the pressure on the global healthcare workforce continues to intensify in two forms: the “potentially overwhelming burden of illnesses that stresses health system capacity” and the “adverse effects on healthcare workers, including the risk of infection. It also explains that “the combination of stress and possible exposure puts healthcare professionals, from physicians, to nurses, to specialists, at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 and potentially spreading it to others. 

A Focus on Mental Health 

Not only are healthcare professionals who test and treat patients for COVID-19 at a higher risk for infection than the general public, working in a pandemic also can affect your mental health. Quarantine and isolation often bring on negative side effects, including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress (PTS). A study of employees of a Beijing hospital that treated SARS patients found that 10 percent exhibited symptoms of PTS, such as flashbacks, nightmares and changes in mood and thinking. Common signs that you or another healthcare professional are feeling anxious about the COVID-19 outbreak include:

  • Frequent worry
  • Moments of fear and feeling helpless
  • A change in sleep patterns
  • Withdrawal from activities that you normally enjoy
  • Joylessness
  • Hopelessness
  • Feelings of frustration, resentment or anger
  • Sadness and or tearfulness 

Healthcare professionals who experience increased stress and burnout may also have a negative effect on patients; evidence suggests that burnout is associated with increased medical errors

Proactively Achieving Stress Relief 

You’ve no doubt read numerous articles recently about the new coronavirus. Beyond keeping up with the latest tips and trends for treating COVID-19, it’s essential that you attempt to decrease your stress level and avoid unchecked burnout. We’re using this blog to give you some ideas – beyond use of recommended barrier precautions in patient care and adherence to CDC evidence-based guidelines – on how to accomplish that. 

Tips for Healthcare Leaders/Administrators:

  • Emphasize the importance of self-care as the center of the response.[1]
  • Allow employees to focus on immediate needs instead of less critical tasks.
  • Ensure your organization has a detailed infection control preparedness plan for the new coronavirus.
  • Offer flexible sick leave policies that aren’t punitory.
  • Encourage physicians to delegate non-clinical tasks.
  • Recognize and reward employees for their actions during the outbreak.
  • Create a culture of open communication and positivity.

Tips for Physicians’ and Other Healthcare Professionals:

  • Ensure you’re following proper protocols for cleaning and preventing spread.
  • Explore alternatives to face-to-face triage and visits (i.e. telemedicine).[2]
  • Supportively discuss with family members protective planning for the home, protocols for routine arrival home after duty and the benefits of taking off shoes, removing and washing clothing and immediately showering.[2]
  • Limit your exposure to general news about COVID-19, especially on social media.
  • Stay connected with family, friends and support networks – digitally if necessary.
  • Focus on what you can reasonably accomplish instead of everything on your to-do list.
  • Attempt to take regular breaks to focus on a stress-reducing activity (i.e. reading, taking a walk, doing yoga).
  • Try to eat healthy, well-balanced meals, exercise regularly, get plenty of sleep and avoid alcohol and drugs.
  • Focus on what you can control (i.e. preparing supplies in case you’re quarantined).[3]
  • Discuss with staff members details about covering for each other in the case of an absence in the office.

Most importantly, talk to someone about how you’re feeling, whether it’s a colleague, family member, friend or mental health professional. According to the American Medical Association (AMA), five reasons physicians are less likely to seek treatment for burnout are fear of licensure problems, the “physician personality,” a programming to cope alone, survival mentality and a “self-doubt, imposter syndrome.” Don’t be afraid to talk about your stress from treating patients with COVID-19. 

Employing Technology to Streamline Workflows 

There are a myriad of healthcare technologies that can assist your practice in especially busy times as this pandemic. Make sure, though, that the ones you utilize are up-to-date and don’t hinder your workflows. According to the Ponemon Institute, clinicians waste an average of 45 minutes per day by utilizing outdated communication technologies. 

Employ solutions that facilitate ease of use, free you to focus on patient care and reduce or eliminate downtime and service interruptions. Only implement technologies that offer physicians a seamless way to communicate with their colleagues, reduce the burden of repetitive data input and have the capability to be integrated with other critical systems. 

Additional Resources 

Infection Control Advice for Physicians – American College of Physicians

Recommendations for Improving Access to Mental Health and Substance Use Care.- American Psychiatric Association 

Epion Health in Action 

Epion is in a unique position to truly help providers manage the COVID-19 challenge — with at-home check-in, COVID messaging and integration with ANY telehealth solution. We’re offering our Epion PreVisit solution at no charge through the end of April. This offer is available on a first-come, first-served basis to any practice using athenahealth. 

[1]https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2763136?guestAccessKey=3bb66b23-edb9-40b9-9210-5016ba70da89&utm_source=For_The_Media&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=ftm_links&utm_content=tfl&utm_term=031220

[2]https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/infection-control/control-recommendations.html

[3]https://thriveglobal.com/stories/how-to-manage-your-mental-health-during-the-coronavirus-outbreak/