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COVID-19: Psychiatrists ‘more than a match’ for crisis moment



Tackling the COVID-19 crisis will require psychiatrists to muster the courage to lead, establish trust, and ultimately provide psychiatric care with competence, honesty, and compassion, said Patrice A. Harris, MD, an Atlanta-based psychiatrist who is president of the American Medical Association.

Dr. Patrice Harris, past chair of AMA board of trustees

Dr. Patrice Harris

Leaders in psychiatry are uniquely positioned to combat a wave of disease misinformation, address inequities in care, and meet the logistical challenges of safely meeting patient needs as the outbreak continues, Dr. Harris said at the American Psychiatric Association annual meeting, which was held as a virtual live event.

“I believe you, we, are more than a match for this moment – a moment that requires our leadership and requires us to hold other leaders accountable as we fight this pandemic,” she said in remarks to online attendees.

Using trust to fight myths

Misinformation about COVID-19 has been “spreading rapidly, even intentionally, due to fear or political agendas,” said Dr. Harris, who became the 174th president of the AMA in June 2019.

“I spent the first 2 weeks in this pandemic dispelling the myth that African Americans could not become infected with COVID-19,” she said. Others believe the coronavirus crisis is a new way to force vaccinations on people who don’t want them, added Dr. Harris.

Myths, rumors, and conspiracy theories lead to “more illness and death,” she said, at a time when most Americans say they’ve lost trust in the federal government and even in other American citizens.

“Fortunately, people still trust us – their doctors,” she added. “We fight for science, we call out quackery and snake oil when we see it, [and] we are willing to counter the propaganda of the antiscience voice.”

Physicians are ranked among the most trusted professions because they are committed to seeing, acknowledging, and sharing patients’ human experience, “and of course, I believe we do that as psychiatrists more than most,” Dr. Harris said.

Fighting COVID-19 at the AMA level

During the pandemic, the AMA has advocated for adequate testing and supplies, adequate insurance coverage, and changes to current procedural technology (CPT) codes to streamline novel coronavirus testing. The AMA has also developed a free COVID-19 resource center on the JAMA Network website, Dr. Harris said, as well as guidance on protecting medical students responding to the pandemic.

The safety of health care clinicians remains a central issue for the AMA at a time when masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) remain in short supply.

In a recent letter to Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading the White House’s coronavirus task force, AMA Executive Vice President and CEO James L. Madara, MD, urged the Trump administration to undertake a Manhattan Project–like effort to expand capacity for needed supplies.

“We will continue to call on the White House, and APA has as well, to make sure these needs are met,” Dr. Harris said.

COVID-19 and inequities in care

Because the pandemic has had dramatic effects on African American communities across the United States, AMA Chief Health Equity Officer Aletha Maybank, MD, has made recent media appearances to highlight care inequities and what can be done about them.

Meanwhile, the AMA and other physician associations have urged the Trump Administration to collect, analyze, and make available COVID-19 data by race and ethnicity: “We can’t fix a problem until we identify a problem,” Dr. Harris said in her address to the APA.

Relying on science

In a virtual address hosted by the National Press Club earlier in April, Dr. Harris made an appeal for “relying on the science and evidence” to inform COVID-19–related decisions.

Elected officials need to “affirm science, evidence, and fact in their words and actions,” while media need to be vigilant in citing credible sources and challenging those who “chose to trade in misinformation,” she said in that address.

Speaking at the APA virtual meeting, Dr. Harris spoke of an “assault on science for several years” that inspired the National Press Club address. “We wanted to remind the public of its responsibility to focus on science and the evidence, for us to turn the tide against COVID-19,” she explained.

Physician care and self-care

While the AMA urges social distancing, Dr. Harris used the term “physical distancing” in her APA address. Physical distancing emphasizes the need for stay-at-home and shelter-in-place restrictions, while recognizing the need for maintaining meaningful social interactions, she explained.

Social media use represents one “opportunity” to bridge that gap when physical proximity is not an option, she added.

Dr. Harris also stressed the need for physicians to “take time out and practice self-care” to ensure that they are recharged and able to provide optimal patient care.

“We need to be there for others, but we have to put our own masks on first,” she said.

Dr. Harris reported no financial relationships with commercial interests.

SOURCE: Harris PA. APA 2020 Virtual Meeting.

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