Dealing with the Psychological Impact of being a Pandemic Physician

The COVID-19 pandemic has Physicians everywhere scrambling to adjust to difficult challenges on a unique medical battlefield. As this crisis unravels in real-time, no one is sure of what kind of psychological toll it will take on America’s frontline Physicians.

Pandemic care is often likened to practicing in a warzone due to high mortality rates, poor working conditions, crushing patient censuses, and challenging triage decisions secondary to equipment rationing. While many Physicians worldwide have answered the call to join the COVID fight, it is important to consider what effects this work may have on their mental health. For insight into the psychological challenges that may await frontline pandemic Physicians, consider the results of research evaluating the effects of wartime care on combat medics. Medics who were exposed to wartime conditions were 2.4 times more likely to seek mental health assistance than were their non-combat medic colleagues and were also more likely to screen positive for PTSD1. Depression was also a central issue for these professionals, as they were 2.7 times more likely to screen positive for depression after deployment1.

It is critical to recognize that the added burdens of pandemic care on an already taxed and frequently burned out American Physician population, may lead to a marked increase in mental health issues. This highlights just how important it is for pandemic Physicians to have access to effective mental healthcare solutions during this crisis.

Tips to Help Cope

  • Professional Assistance Is Just a Phone Call Away- There are always colleagues working in the field of mental health that understand what Physicians are going through and can provide nonjudgmental and supportive assistance. One such COVID-19 inspired mental health resource is the Physician Support Line2. This hotline was created to provide COVID Physicians with free, confidential, phone-based access to over 600 Psychiatrists nationwide. This volunteer sourced hotline is available 7 days a week for Physicians seeking peer-based mental health assistance.
  • Talk to Colleagues- It is crucial to remember that Physicians are working as part of a team and are experiencing many of the same emotions as their colleagues. The simple act of talking about shared experiences can be therapeutic and can help find a healthy balance between acknowledging emotions and expressing them with others who understand.
  • Communicate with Family- Pandemic care and isolation measures have many professionals spending extended time apart from family, making communication difficult. Remember that work affects not only Physicians, but their families. It is critical to avoid emotional isolation from support networks like family when things are tough. The simple act of sending a quick text or making a short call to family can help decrease anxiety and apprehension levels.  
  • Maintain a Healthy Perspective- Pandemic care burdens Physicians with a unique set of challenges and demands. These extraordinary circumstances make it essential to adjust self-expectations regarding clinical performance and patient interactions, so that they align with the new reality of one’s working situation. Try to avoid negative self-talk and criticism about performance, no one is perfect and even the best efforts don’t always have optimal outcomes.
  • Don’t Forget About Self Care- “You can’t care for others if you don’t care for yourself.” Extended shifts on the floor wearing layers of PPE can stop Physicians from taking care of basic physical needs which can lead to exhaustion and dehydration. It is critical to make hydration, eating well, and getting sufficient rest a priority.

Utilize Tech Options- There are many Apps and online resources to help Physicians unwind and find a new focus. Consider listening to podcasts, guided mindfulness narratives or music while on break or try a relaxation App to help escape, even if it is only for a few minutes. Telemedicine is also a great option to consider if schedules don’t allow for time away from the hospital for mental health assistance. There are many Psychiatrists working online that would be happy to help Physicians successfully manage the emotions associated with practicing during this crisis.