Article by Lori Weichenthal, M.D., FACEP and Jay Kaplan, M.D., FACEP
Being a physician in our modern society has never been easy. Surveys over the last ten years have shown that physicians in all specialties suffer from chronic stress and that over 50 percent have some symptoms of burnout. Add the ingredient of a global pandemic and it is a recipe for disaster. Physicians on the front line face long work hours, heavy patient loads and an increased burden of caring for seriously ill and dying patients. They deal with this situation while having to pay extra attention to their own personal protection and with an increased sense of isolation from their patients, patient’s families and colleagues.
Given the unique and confusing features of the Coronavirus, including the undetected risk in some patients who become critically ill and the lack of any proven treatment, physicians worry for their patients, their families, and for themselves. Physicians not on the front line also face increased stress with the reality of decreased patient visits and the resulting financial implications, transitions to telehealth with having to learn new ways to relate to patients, and concerns about keeping themselves and their staff safe.
On top of these professional concerns, physicians face the same stressors that all people are experiencing during this pandemic. Fear of the unknown, concern for the health and welfare of their families, and increased isolation due to stay at home orders, are just a few of the stressors we face in this new world.
It is no wonder that many physicians are functioning on the high arousal (overload) end of the Yerkes-Dodson Human Performance and Stress Curve (https://hbr.org/2016/04/are-you-too-stressed-to-be-productive-or-not-stressed-enough) where anxiety, panic and anger dominate. All indications are that these external stressors will continue as this pandemic lingers and our society faces periods of cohesiveness, disillusionment, setbacks and finally, rebuilding (https://www.samhsa.gov/dtac/recovering-disasters/phases-disaster).
Even in the face of these significant stressors, we can engage in behaviors that help to relieve stress so that we are able to function at a higher level, both in our professional and personal lives.
These are new and challenging times for all of us and stress is a normal response. Self-care is key as we continue to face this pandemic and the world that will be created anew on the other side.
Lori Weichenthal, M.D., FACEP
Professor of Clinical Emergency Medicine
Assistant Dean of Graduate Medical Education
Jay Kaplan, M.D., FACEP
Medical Director of Care Transformation, LCMC Health
Clinical Associate Professor, Emergency Medicine, LSU Health Sciences Center
Attending Emergency Physician and Academic Faculty, University Medical Center New Orleans
New Orleans, Louisiana