Long working hours, emergency calls, a never ending stream of patients and prolonged stress are factors that are common in the lives of doctors. In countries with a low doctor-patient ratio like India, doctors often experience overwhelming workload and excessive pressure. Factors such as lack of safety and vulnerability to violence further adds to this stress. Even before the coronavirus outbreak challenges healthcare providers like never before, physicians were experiencing a high rate of burnout. Several studies have pointed this out in recent years. A small but powerful indicative study published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry in 2018 suggested that a significantly higher proportion of doctors in Indian setting experience stress, depression, and burnout. Out of the 445 responders in the study, 30.1% were found to have depression and 16.7% reported having suicidal thoughts. More than 90% of the participants reported some level of burnout.
The coronavirus outbreak has hugely magnified this problem, exacerbating the burnout rate in doctors and other healthcare staff particularly those involved in treating COVID 19 patients. Burnout is a condition where an individual experiences overwhelming mental and physical exhaustion owing to excessive stress. It not just affects the mental and physical health of the individual but also impacts his/her job related outcomes.
The COVID 19 burnout in doctors
In China, a cross-sectional study published in JAMA Network Open Journal in March 2020 found that the coronavirus outbreak had a devastating impact on the mental health of healthcare workers. Out of the 1257 respondents, 50.4% were found to have symptoms of depression, 34.0% reported insomnia, 44.6% reported symptoms of anxiety and 71.5% reported distress. The researchers concluded that working in the frontline was an independent risk factor for worse mental health outcomes.
Doctors at the frontlines of the pandemic are facing extremely challenging working conditions. Long grueling working hours, constant emergencies, witnessing a high death rate and a persistent struggle to save lives not just cause physical exhaustion but also result in an emotional and mental turmoil. In countries where severely ill patients exceeded the healthcare capacity to treat, doctors had to actually choose whom to treat and whom to let die. Absence of a clear treatment route is another major work challenge.
Wearing PPEs for long hours is itself a major challenge. Once your PPE is on your ability to eat, drink water or even go to the washroom is restricted. The grueling heat makes long hours of wearing PPEs worse. However, the most significant challenge is the threat from the disease itself. Being in the midst of patients every day puts doctors at a high risk of caching the infection themselves. By first week of May, over 500 doctors, nurses and paramedics had already been infected by Coronavirus in the country. An AIIMS doctors was applauded for putting himself at significant risk when he removed his goggled and face shield to be able to clearly see and re-intubate a seriously ill patient. This tells us how doctors are putting themselves at risk during this global pandemic. As doctors get infected and result in a further depletion of workforce, the remaining physicians face an even greater workload.
Apart from all the above concerns, one major concern for doctors and healthcare staff is the threat of carrying the infection to their home and families.
How to address the burnout crisis
As much as it is important to ensure the safety of doctors, it is equally important to help them address the mental and physical outcomes of burnout. Governments, healthcare providers and hospitals must initiate a series of measures to help address this burnout crisis.
Adequate availability of protective equipment
Strict adherence to properly wearing PPEs has been found to be effective in minimizing infection rate among doctor and healthcare workers. It is extremely important therefore that governments and hospitals ensure adequate supply and sufficient availability of PPEs for doctors. Adequate supply of PPEs and addressing the shortage concerns also allays the mental stress and fear among doctors. It is also important to ensure that doctors do not have to wear the same protective equipment for more than 8-10 hours.
Access to counseling and mental health experts
The World Health Organization has advised doctors to take extra care of their health by consuming healthy food, taking adequate rest and staying active. The body has also recommended de-stressing and avoiding smoking or drugs. Hospitals must ensure that doctors have regular access to counseling support to advocate healthy living. They must also have access to mental health experts to give them a proper outlet for their mental and emotional turmoil.
Offering alternative stay arrangements
Governments and private healthcare providers must also arrange for alternative accommodation for doctors and other healthcare staff members to allow them stay away from their families during the time they are treating COVID 19 patients. This takes off the extra pressure and concern about carrying the virus home.
Reduce burden by adding to the manpower
With the number of patients rising steeply every day, we need to find innovative ways to have sufficient backup resource of doctors. In this situation, it makes sense to train final year MBBS and PG medical students in critical care and keep them ready to be deployed in case the need arises.