Commentary: Finding ways to help our health care heroes

Growing up, I always enjoyed watching superheroes like Superman defeat the bad guys. Lex Luthor’s evil plan would be foiled once again, and the world would be saved. However, in the real world, superheroes don’t always wear capes when they save lives. Doctors are our superheroes, and we must protect them as they protect us. It is a shame that so many physicians experience burnout and that the situation has only worsened over the pandemic.

The Journal of American Radiology indicates that past epidemics increased the risk of a worsened mental health status for physicians, which could lead to burnout. According to a 2020 article in Plos One by T. Kannampallil, physician burnout was at an all-time low at from 33.7% pre-pandemic to 46.3% during the pandemic. That means almost half of the physicians were and may still be burnt out. Also, it is disappointing to see that the 33.7% is “an all-time low” during the pre-pandemic, as that is already a large percentage of physicians who experience burnout.

Burnout is not only terrible for physicians, but for their patients as well. A 2021 article by Janis D. Carrau in the medical journal Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery reports that physician burnout also has considerable implications in health care delivery. “As burnout progresses, work performance is affected to the detriment of patient care, leading to decreased quality of care, patient satisfaction, and productivity and increased medical errors and physician turnover,” the article notes.

Now that physician burnout is at its highest, we must find solutions to help our doctors. Luckily, there are many solutions that will decrease burnout rates. They can be categorized into two levels: individual and organizational. Dr. Christina Maslach of the University of California Berkley Psychology Department outlines the primary themes found in burnout such as workload, control, reward, community, fairness and values.

According to Carrau’s 2021 article, changes in the “individual level (include), stress management, self-care, and gratitude interventions,” while changes in the “organizational level (include), shortened shifts and policies regarding scheduling requests, cross coverage, vacation, sick leave, maternity and paternity leave.”

To implement solutions based on the individual level, we could help our physicians by encouraging conversations about mental health in everyday life. By de-stigmatizing mental health, other people (including physicians) will feel safer and ask for help. Sometimes just by being open, sympathetic and aware of the impacts of mental health, you could create a comforting and accepting environment.

Next time that there is a long wait in the hospital, we could try to be patient in understanding the workload and stress of physicians and providers. Many physicians are under the impression that they should not rest too often or take vacations because it is their duty to help their patients. To address this, we as a society should also try to destigmatize this notion by normalizing that taking breaks is OK. For example, we could have more doctors vacationing in travel advertisements. Or, if you are in the medical field, talking about going on vacation to coworkers would help with the destigmatization. Lastly, simply showing gratitude and saying “thank you” to your doctor could go a long way.

To implement solutions based on the organizational level, we could directly advocate for improvements in hospital policies to manage physicians’ workload and stress. For example, we could join a movement, aid in protests, and/or spread the word for a policy change through social media. The goal is to gain traction and attention to pressure policy makers, politicians or hospital administrators to make the changes embedded within the law. These policy changes should be nationwide. For more information on how to push for improvement in hospital policies, visit The Joint Commission or Physicians Foundation.

Please help our heroes.

— By Sarah Thai

Edmonds resident Sarah Thai is a second-year student at the University Washington. She wrote this paper as part of a project for her public health class.

 

 

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