Medical Professionals’ Burnout Didn’t Start With COVID-19

by Sep 1, 2020Inspiring Stories

Nearly 50 percent of nurses are going through burnout as a result of the pandemic, an August 2020 study of Japanese health workers revealed. Doctors die by suicide twice as often as the general population in the US. The numbers across the globe are speaking for themselves, but who is speaking for the health care professionals who are suffering?

One such doctor, pediatrician Dr. Evelyn Jones from Cincinnati, OH, has seen her own limits in the medical field, and learned when to make a change. Long before COVID-19, a full decade ago, she was faced with another burn-out inducing change in the healthcare profession–the transition to virtual charts, laptops in patient appointments, and an overload of paperwork. She loved her patients, but the rest of the requirements weighed heavy on her on a daily basis.

The invention of the electronic medical record was supposed to make things easier, but for Jones, it was the beginning of a downhill slope, and she was getting burnt out. Some doctors made the adjustment by typing on the computer as they talked to the patient, while others took notes and spent their personal time inputting data into their charts.

“Because I didn’t take the computer into the room, I was always doing charts,” she said. “There was no way to keep up with that pace. I couldn’t do it.” She wanted her charts to reflect the deep relationships she had with patients, and to truly do a good job she had to make notes after each patient and input them all later at home (on the evenings, weekends, and even vacations).

“The way I was raised and tried to teach my kids is that if something is too much you need to figure out a strategy to change your circumstances.” She knew it was time for a change, and for her own mental health, she gave up her decade in a private practice with patients and families she loved to return to the hospital setting.

“Do I miss the patients I used to talk to? Absolutely. Do I miss working in the office? Absolutely. But I don’t miss the drama of the charts… of doing them all the time… or the competitiveness [between doctors] of seeing a gazillion patients, or doctors stealing patients,” she said. She established herself as a newborn nursery specialist on a mom and baby floor, and was enjoying her new lower stress life as a hospitalist.

Enter COVID. It wasn’t the beginning of burnout for many healthcare professionals, but rather the straw that broke the camel’s back, or the icing on the cake, or just the last, and most terrifying, in a list of demands over decades.

“The first thing I was thinking was ‘Oh my goodness, this is going to be scary,’” she said. The lack of PPE, the daily meetings about protocol, and doubts about leaders having a clear plan started to wear on her. “At first I felt overwhelmed and wondered how this would turn out.”

And then came the mask dilemma. At first doctors, including Jones, were told they didn’t need masks, but she decided that wasn’t in her best interest and convinced her immunocompromised friends to wear one as well. She worried about the risk factors, including (according to her) being slightly overweight, 58 years old, and African American. However her long and successful career, and the confidence she gained taking care of herself in her earlier career transition, meant she planned to forge her own path to protect herself during the pandemic.

A few weeks after she’d been convincing her friends to wear a mask, the CDC mandated it for doctors. She continues to struggle with people who won’t wear masks, and leaders who don’t openly model wearing them for the country.

“It makes me angry when I see people with no mask. Don’t they care about the doctor in the ER? Don’t they care about the nurse?” She is devastated at the health care lives lost, especially in New York, and especially those with high levels of education such as ICU doctors, who she refers to as “national treasures.”

“All the education in NY they threw out the window. It takes 8 years to make a doctor, and another 4 to make an ER doctor, and another 6 to make an ICU doctor. You are killing off the teachers, and the residents which are the learners. You are killing off national treasures…the nurse, the respiratory therapist, the people who feed you.”

Jones worries the country doesn’t see doctors as human beings, leading to their lack of protection during the pandemic, both physically and mentally. She commends hospitals which have provided doctors and the rest of the staff with opportunities to meet with mental health professionals. “I think it’s good. Nobody should ever be ashamed of meeting with a mental health specialist,” Jones said.

We at Itivate commend Dr. Jones and other healthcare professionals for their tireless work during the pandemic, but also for setting an example for others in your field: for taking care of your physical and mental health and encouraging others to do so, for removing yourself from situations that aren’t working for you any more, and for standing up for vulnerable populations, such as doctors who are dying on the frontlines of COVID. If your healthcare company is struggling with burnout or mental health concerns, please reach out to get started towards systematic, company-wide change.

Written by Jessica Walther, CEO of Itivate

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