A new review offers fresh guidance to help stem the mental health toll of the COVID-19 pandemic on frontline clinicians.
Investigators gathered practice guidelines and resources from a wide range of health care organizations and professional societies to develop a conceptual framework of mental health support for health care professionals (HCPs) caring for COVID-19 patients.
“Support needs to be deployed in multiple dimensions – including individual, organizational, and societal levels – and include training in resilience, stress reduction, emotional awareness, and self-care strategies,” lead author Rachel Schwartz, PhD, health services researcher, Stanford (Calif.) University, said in an interview.
The review was published Aug. 21 in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
An opportune moment
Coauthor Rebecca Margolis, DO, director of well-being in the division of medical education and faculty development, Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, said that this is “an opportune moment to look at how we treat frontline providers in this country.”
Studies of previous pandemics have shown heightened distress in HCPs, even years after the pandemic, and the unique challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic surpass those of previous pandemics, Dr. Margolis said in an interview.
Dr. Schwartz, Dr. Margolis, and coauthors Uma Anand, PhD, LP, and Jina Sinskey, MD, met through the Collaborative for Healing and Renewal in Medicine network, a group of medical educators, leaders in academic medicine, experts in burnout research and interventions, and trainees working together to promote well-being among trainees and practicing physicians.
“We were brought together on a conference call in March, when things were particularly bad in New York, and started looking to see what resources we could get to frontline providers who were suffering. It was great to lean on each other and stand on the shoulders of colleagues in New York, who were the ones we learned from on these calls,” said Dr. Margolis.
The authors recommended addressing clinicians’ basic practical needs, including ensuring essentials like meals and transportation, establishing a “well-being area” within hospitals for staff to rest, and providing well-stocked living quarters so clinicians can safely quarantine from family, as well as personal protective equipment and child care.
Clinicians are often asked to “assume new professional roles to meet evolving needs” during a pandemic, which can increase stress. The authors recommended targeted training, assessment of clinician skills before redeployment to a new clinical role, and clear communication practices around redeployment.
Recognition from hospital and government leaders improves morale and supports clinicians’ ability to continue delivering care. Leadership should “leverage communication strategies to provide clinicians with up-to-date information and reassurance,” they wrote.
Dr. Margolis noted that
“My colleagues feel a sense of moral injury, putting their lives on the line at work, performing the most perilous job, and their kids can’t hang out with other kids, which just puts salt on the wound,” she said.
Additional sources of moral injury are deciding which patients should receive life support in the event of inadequate resources and bearing witness to, or enforcing, policies that lead to patients dying alone.
Leaders should encourage clinicians to “seek informal support from colleagues, managers, or chaplains” and to “provide rapid access to professional help,” the authors noted.
Furthermore, they contended that leaders should “proactively and routinely monitor the psychological well-being of their teams,” since guilt and shame often prevent clinicians from disclosing feelings of moral injury.
“Being provided with routine mental health support should be normalized and it should be part of the job – not only during COVID-19 but in general,” Dr. Schwartz said.