The recent pressures placed on hospital staff and first responders due to COVID-19 is a reminder to society of the mental health toll that frontline health care professionals face. Yet, even before the outbreak of Coronavirus, healthcare workers faced higher rates of mental fatigue, burnout and suicide.
Mental Health Concerns Among Physicians:
Before COVID-19, Healthcare providers ran the risk of experiencing work fatigue and burnout. Doctors, NPs and other support staff are at risk of feeling undervalued and overburdened. These feelings can demoralize healthcare staff and make them more vulnerable to mental health conditions.
Some researchers argue that medical worker burnout is due to larger systematic issues, such as a partially dysfunctional healthcare system. This is unsettling due to the fact that healthcare workers already experience higher levels of stress due to the nature of their profession.
Providing quality care and treatments to injured and sick people is already stressful by itself. However, other environmental stressors can help to create higher levels of physician burnout. Some of these stressors include inefficient workflows, non-user-friendly software, burdensome documentation requirement and excessive regulatory oversight. Yet, as with other occupations, there is still a lingering stigma surrounding mental health treatment.
The mental health risks are real for medical providers. The American Medical Association notes that 2 out of 5 doctors will screen positive for mental health issues like depression and anxiety. This kind of behavioral health conditions are early indicators of health threats such as suicide.
In fact, medical students are three times more likely to die by suicide when compared to the general population. Identifying these conditions and helping physicians, as well as other health care workers, is essential in order to prevent these tragedies. However, the expansion of Coronavirus in the United States has added a new layer of stress and anxiety for healthcare professionals.
Stress: COVID-19 and Health Professionals:
For the general U.S. population, the COVID-19 pandemic has substantially elevated stress levels across the nation. Both patients and healthcare providers are concerned about the effects of Coronavirus on both people’s physical and mental health. A trend that is creating a greater level of anxiety and other behavioral health issues.
In an attempt to lessen anxiety for patients, insurance providers like Cigna has provided coverage for Coronavirus (COVID-19) testing. Cigna’s website states that the insurance company will cover the cost of testing for their customers, but health practitioners need to prescribe the test. Many other insurance companies are following Cigna’s policy, yet coverage can vary depending on the individual’s plan. Like many other medical procedures a prior authorization is required.
Reducing stress among health practitioners is more of a challenge. Beyond the fear of the virus itself, many providers have been forced to become more technologically proficient. However, even before the emergence of Coronavirus, medical providers were encouraged/forced to move away from paper records and use integrated online computer systems.
Successfully responding and treating patients in the current COVID-19 environment requires the use of cloud-based, videoconferencing technology. The infectious nature of the virus has forced healthcare providers to shift to providing telehealth services. The spread of Coronavirus has even inspired government officials to relax HIPAA regulations in order to expand access to medical treatments via telecommunication tools during the pandemic.
Not until there is a viable treatment and/or vaccine for the disease, will clinicians start to feel less stressed about COVID-19. In the meantime, data seems to indicate that healthcare workers are experiencing even greater levels of burnout, anxiety and PTSD from the Coronavirus pandemic. This is especially true for medical staff who are on the front line such as first responders and ER employees. The challenging position that medical staff find themselves can even generate thoughts of suicide.
Many healthcare practitioners are forced to confront injury, trauma and death on a daily basis. This fact alone makes medical staff more susceptible to feelings of emotional burnout, stress and even thoughts of suicide. The onslaught of Coronavirus cases and deaths has likely only increased these feelings in healthcare workers.
News coverage of ER workers committing suicide reminds Americans of the incredible stress that these workers face. Overall, healthcare workers are trained to operate during emotional and intense situations. But the emergence of COVID-19 has pushed the limits of many healthcare workers.
Healthcare workers are skilled at controlling and compartmentalizing their emotions during work. These psychological tools are necessary to mentally survive stressful work situations. Yet, workers who are directly experiencing the impact of COVID-19 are finding that they need to make difficult choices while using limited resources. At the same time, they are putting their personal health at risk in order to provide treatment to patients who need it the most.
The Aftermath of COVID-19:
As was the case with polio and smallpox, a treatment and cure will hopefully be discovered. However, the lingering effects on people’s mental health will last much longer. This will be especially true for healthcare workers who have experienced the challenges created by Coronavirus.
Researchers will look for ways to keep ER and ICU staff mentally healthy. One study from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) actually investigated this topic. Researchers looked at what factors helped to determine which health workers were at the most risk during pandemics. They found a number of factors that increased the risk of healthcare providers experiencing psychological harm.
These factors for health workers were:
- Those who had dependent children.
- Feeling unsupported in their efforts.
- Experiencing long quarantines.
- Concerned about a loved one who was infected.
- Younger and less experienced.
The Coronavirus pandemic will impact the United States (and the world) in a variety of ways. Some of these ways are predictable while others are still unseen. American healthcare practitioners will especially feel the immediate and lingering impact of the pandemic. The impact on a healthcare provider’s mental (and psychical) health will be noticeable. However, the question is how noticeable will this lingering impact be on the medical profession.
Industry observers agree that as COVID-19 burns across the nation, healthcare provider’s mental health concerns need to be addressed. Some of these workers will develop anxiety disorders and suffer from depression due to the pressures of their occupation. What is needed to combat this rising trend is thoughtful support and counseling for these valuable workers.
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