The global COVID-19 pandemic has escalated everyone’s stress levels, especially clinicians caring for hospitalized patients. New pressures have added to everyday stress, new studies have revised prior patient care recommendations, and the world generally seems upside down. What can a busy hospitalist do to maintain a modicum of sanity in all the craziness?
The stressors facing hospitalists
Of all the burdens COVID-19 has unleashed, the biggest may be uncertainty. Not only is there unease about the virus itself, there also is legitimate concern about the future of medicine, said Elizabeth Harry, MD, SFHM, a hospitalist and senior director of clinical affairs at the University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora.
“What does it look like after an event like this, particularly in areas like academic medicine and teaching our next generation and getting funding for research? And how do we continue to produce physicians that can provide excellent care?” she asked.
There is also uncertainty in the best way to care for patients, said Eileen Barrett, MD, MPH, SFHM, a hospitalist at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.
“There are some models that are emerging to predict who will have a worse outcome, but they’re still not great models, so we have uncertainty for a given patient.” And, she noted, as the science continues to evolve, there exists a constant worry that “you might have inadvertently caused someone harm.”
The financial implications of the pandemic are creating uncertainty too. “When you fund a health care system with elective procedures and you can’t do those, and instead have to shift to the most essential services, a lot of places are seeing a massive deficit, which is going to affect staff morale and some physician offices are going to close,” said Elisabeth Poorman, MD, MPH, a primary care and internal medicine physician and chair of the King County Medical Society Physician Wellness Committee in Seattle.
When the pandemic began in the United States, “fear of the unknown was perhaps the scariest part, particularly as it pertained to personal protective equipment,” said Mark Rudolph, MD, SFHM, chief experience officer and vice president of patient experience and physician development at Sound Physicians in Tacoma, Wash. “For most clinicians, this is the first time that they are themselves in harm’s way while they do their jobs. And worse, they risk bringing the virus home to their families. That is the concern I hear most.”
Worrying about being able to provide excellent patient care is a big stressor, especially since this is the heart and soul of why most hospitalists have gone into their line of work.
“Part of providing excellent care to your patients is providing excellent supportive care to their families,” Dr. Harry said. “There’s some dissonance there in not being able to allow the family to come visit, but wanting to keep them safe, and it feels really hard to support your patients and support their families in the best way. It can feel like you’re just watching and waiting to see what will happen, and that we don’t have a lot of agency over which direction things take.”
There is concern for health care team members as well, Dr. Harry added. “Physicians care a lot about their teams and how they’re doing. I think there’s a sense of esprit de corps among folks and worry for each other there.”