As pandemic rages, physician wellness suffers in silence

Susan R. Bailey, MD , Past President

As physicians, we are asked to wear many hats in service to our patients—healer, scientist, communicator, advocate, researcher, scholar, problem-solver and more. But especially at a time like this, it is important to remember we are also human, and subject to the same intense feelings of fatigue, anxiety, self-doubt and depression that arise in periods of extreme stress.

Physician burnout demands urgent action

The AMA is leading the national effort to solve the growing physician burnout crisis. We're working to eliminate the dysfunction in health care by removing the obstacles and burdens that interfere with patient care.

Just as COVID-19 has devastated the lives of our patients, it has jeopardized our own safety and punctured the aura of invincibility we might have had. Many physicians are suffering mental and physical exhaustion. Some are burned out. We have watched dear colleagues and friends die. We see our emergency departments and ICUs filling up as case counts and deaths surge to record highs in many states.

Each day we walk a delicate balance of service to our patients while also fearing that we may contract the virus and spread it to our coworkers, families and friends.

Burnout presented an epic challenge for physicians and the practice of medicine long before COVID-19 brought so much illness and death. The virus has exacerbated the underlying and systemic problems that contribute most directly to physician burnout. But the pandemic has also triggered a host of other challenges by imposing the need for physical isolation, reducing access to some in-person community support systems and resources, and limiting the opportunities to receive counseling, to name just three.

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Where to find help

The AMA feels the weight of this moment on your shoulders. Since this pandemic began, we have been working tirelessly to advocate for and deliver the personal protective equipment you need to keep yourself safe, and to provide the resources and support that can ease the stress of this unprecedented time. These tools include:

  • AMA’s mental health resources page provides specific recommendations on how physicians can take care of themselves, their staff and their patients.
  • AMA’s guide to caring for our caregivers will help health system leadership support their physicians and care teams during the pandemic. The guide provides practical examples and strategies to encourage wellness and improve physician satisfaction. It also includes valuable strategies that address workload redistribution, institutional policies, meals, childcare, attention to emotional and mental well-being, and connecting with others.
  • AMA has strategies to prioritize mental health during the winter months and related efforts to reduce burnout and promote wellness.
  • AMA’s comprehensive COVID-19 resource center and our COVID-19 daily video series provides insights from leading experts on an array issues, including bolstering peer support and behavioral health.
  • Our AMA EdHub™ education portal includes dozens of modules around physician health and wellness, including support for physicians to recognize and respond to suicide ideation among their peers, patients and other members of the care team.
  • Our AMA offers two no-cost surveys to assist health care systems and practices measure and monitor the impact of COVID-19 on frontline staff.

Studies show that physicians are more likely to consult their colleagues and peers for support and advice in dealing with job-related stress and similar issues, as opposed to seeking out expert advice from behavioral health professionals. One factor is the emphasis placed on physical stamina and mental toughness in medical school and residency.

Another is the persistent stigma placed against physicians who might otherwise seek outside care for mental health issues, but decline to do so out of fear of jeopardizing their medical licenses. Our AMA has long held that a physician’s mental health should only factor into any decision on licensing or credentialing when it has a current adverse effect on that physician’s ability to practice medicine in a competent, ethical and professional manner.

The need for both physical and mental wellness within our physician community has never been more urgent than it is today. If you think you need help, please seek it out. The Physician Support Line features volunteer psychiatrists offering free and confidential counseling to physicians and medical students at 1-888-409-0142. Also, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) offers free, confidential support on a 24/7/365 basis to anyone of any age.

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With the introduction of one or more safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines this month, physicians will play a crucial role as vaccine ambassadors to our patients, some of whom will be reluctant to receive vaccination. For an in-depth discussion of this issue, I invite you to check out the AMA-sponsored webinar with Peter Marks, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research. All of the installments of this important COVID-19 vaccine webinar series can be viewed on our website.

Overcoming this hesitancy and fostering widespread vaccine acceptance among all demographic groups will be a key factor in defeating COVID-19 going forward. Our AMA will advance this mission by ensuring that physicians and their patients have updated vaccine information and educational resources related to the evaluation, distribution and administration of FDA-authorized vaccines.

We know that physicians will have questions and concerns related to vaccine development and approval, and we are dedicated to providing continuously updated information that answers those questions and addresses those concerns as rapidly and thoroughly as possible.

Our physician community has been through a lot in the last 10 months. We have weathered many storms and we will need to weather much more before a safe and effective vaccine becomes widely available. We will get through it as we have always done – by drawing on the strength and support of our colleagues, and the power of organized medicine.