For the last 14 months, healthcare workers have been referred to as “heroes” for their frontline work during the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, these nurses and doctors oftentimes didn’t feel like heroes.
They watched countless individuals succumb to the novel coronavirus, their life-saving efforts all for nothing. They held up dying patients’ phones so that grieving families, unable to visit in-person, could witness a loved one’s final breaths via FaceTime. They changed clothes, ate dinner and slept in their own garages out of fear they’d bring COVID-19 home and infect a spouse, child or elderly parent.
Needless to say, these events have taken a severe toll on healthcare workers’ mental health, leaving them with depression, anxiety, PTSD and even suicidal thoughts.
In order to figure out how to help the people who helped so many, the House Mental Health Caucus, chaired by Rep. Wendi Thomas (R-Bucks), recently hosted a bipartisan hearing. More than 20 legislators heard testimony from nurses and other healthcare professionals to learn how the state government can support them moving forward.
“We’re here to see what we can do that is meaningful to our healthcare workers,” said Thomas. “We will take the testimony we gathered today and share it with our colleagues to create whatever legislation we need to help our healthcare workers.”
Jennifer C. Collins, PsyD, MSCP, chief wellbeing officer at Penn Medicine, was candid about how burnout rates were already rising prior to the pandemic. In 2019, between 35 and 54 percent of nurses and physicians reported feelings of exhaustion at work due to increased patient-to-staff ratios. That number skyrocketed when COVID-19 hit.
“In September 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, a survey from the National Institute of Healthcare Management revealed that 76 percent of healthcare workers are now reporting burnout and exhaustion. Factors related to this increase include intensity of work, mounting death tolls, feelings of inadequacy and the indifferent attitudes many Americans display toward infection control practices, which is a blatant contrast to the realities of the virus healthcare workers see every day,” said Collins. “Our healthcare workers feel incredibly disrespected.”
One-in-five clinicians are currently seeking jobs outside of the field, which Collins said would be “incredibly detrimental.” Still, may healthcare workers feel discouraged in their current profession.
“We’re not heroes. We’re not fixing this. We’re problem solvers and we’re failing,” said Collins.
Robert McNamara, MD, MAAEM, professor and chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple, pleaded with the legislators to encourage more of the population to get vaccinated.
“This will happen again,” he warned. “We get frustrated with the public. Don’t they see what we see? All these stresses of watching people die. Why not wear a mask? Why not socially distance?”
McNamara echoed Collins’ sentiment about the growing mental health battle among healthcare workers. But seeking help is easier said than done.
“Physicians are afraid to access mental health,” he said, explaining how they fear the state medical board will view them as unfit to practice medicine. “That ought to be explored.”
Tarik Khan, MSN, RN, FNP-BC, president of the Pennsylvania State Nurses Association, shared how less than one-third of nurses think their employer values their health and wellbeing. After months of witnessing multiple deaths daily with minimal PPE to protect themselves, Khan said many nurses now suffer from nightmares, chronic headaches and more. He quoted one nurse who said, “I will never be the same person that I was in January 2020.” Still, most think they don’t have anywhere to turn.
“Mental health services should be covered for frontline workers. Employers should also offer mental health screenings and offer evidence-based programs that prevent and decrease anxiety and depression,” said Khan. “Other efforts should include caregiver response teams to assist caregivers in distress, employer-sponsored wellness initiatives and increased resiliency resources and programs.”
Khan, who delivers vaccines to homebound individuals across Philadelphia, voiced support for the Patient Safety Act. Sponsored by Reps. KC Tomlinson (R-Bucks) and Thomas Mehaffie (R-Dauphin), House Bill 106 would require a higher level of nursing staff at Pennsylvania’s hospitals. It would also set appropriate ratios for Pennsylvania hospitals dependent upon the acuity of the unit’s patient needs.
“It is so clear that action must be taken to ensure hospital patients are safe and get the best care possible,” said Tomlinson. “If we fail to relieve the pressure on our nursing staff, many more will leave the profession just when we need them most.”
Samantha Bambino can be reached at email@example.com