Practice Management

Burnout risk may be exacerbated by COVID crisis

New kinds of job stress multiply in unusual times


Clarissa Barnes, MD, a hospitalist at Avera McKennan Hospital in Sioux Falls, S.D., and until recently medical director of Avera’s LIGHT Program, a wellness-oriented service for doctors, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants, watched the COVID-19 crisis unfold up close in her community and her hospital. Sioux Falls traced its surge of COVID patients to an outbreak at a local meatpacking plant.

Dr. Clarissa Barnes, Avera McKennan Hospital in Sioux Falls, South Dakota

Dr. Clarissa Barnes

“In the beginning, we didn’t know much about the virus and its communicability, although we have since gotten a better handle on that,” she said. “We had questions: Should we give patients more fluids – or less? Steroids or not? In my experience as a hospitalist I never had patients die every day on my shift, but that was happening with COVID.” The crisis imposed serious stresses on frontline providers, and hospitalists were concerned about personal safety and exposure risk – not just for themselves but for their families.

“The first time I worked on the COVID unit, I moved into the guest room in our home, apart from my husband and our young children,” Dr. Barnes said. “Ultimately I caught the virus, although I have since recovered.” Her experience has highlighted how existing issues of job stress and burnout in hospital medicine have been exacerbated by COVID-19. Even physicians who consider themselves healthy may have little emotional reserve to draw upon in a crisis of this magnitude.

“We are social distancing at work, wearing masks, not eating together with our colleagues – with less camaraderie and social support than we used to have,” she said. “I feel exhausted and there’s no question that my colleagues and I have sacrificed a lot to deal with the pandemic.” Add to that the second front of the COVID-19 crisis, Dr. Barnes said, which is “fighting the medical information wars, trying to correct misinformation put out there by people. Physicians who have been on the front lines of the pandemic know how demoralizing it can be to have people negate your first-hand experience.”

The situation has gotten better in Sioux Falls, Dr. Barnes said, although cases have started rising in the state again. The stress, while not gone, is reduced. For some doctors, “COVID reminded us of why we do what we do. Some of the usual bureaucratic requirements were set aside and we could focus on what our patients needed and how to take care of them.”

Taking job stress seriously

Tiffani Panek, MA, SFHM, CLHM, administrator of the division of hospital medicine at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore, said job stress is a major issue for hospitalist groups.

Dr. Tiffani Panek, Administrator of the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center Division of Hospital Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland

Tiffani Panek

“We take it seriously here, and use a survey tool to measure morale in our group annually,” she said. “So far, knock on wood, Baltimore has not been one of the big hot spots, but we’ve definitely had waves of COVID patients.”

The Bayview hospitalist group has a diversified set of leaders, including a wellness director. “They’re always checking up on our people, keeping an eye on those who are most vulnerable. One of the stressors we hadn’t thought about before was for our people who live alone. With the isolation and lockdown, they haven’t been able to socialize, so we’ve made direct outreach, asking people how they were doing,” Ms. Panek said. “People know we’ve got their back – professionally and personally. They know, if there’s something we can do to help, we will do it.”

Bayview Medical Center has COVID-specific units and non-COVID units, and has tried to rotate hospitalist assignments because more than a couple days in a row spent wearing full personal protective equipment (PPE) is exhausting, Ms. Panek said. The group also allocated a respite room just outside the biocontainment unit, with a computer and opportunities for providers to just sit and take a breather – with appropriate social distancing. “It’s not fancy, but you just have to wear a mask, not full PPE.”

The Hopkins hospitalist group’s wellness director, Catherine Washburn, MD, also a working hospitalist, said providers are exhausted, and trying to transition to the new normal is a moving target.

“It’s hard for anyone to say what our lives will look like in 6 months,” she said. “People in our group have lost family members to COVID, or postponed major life events, like weddings. We acknowledge losses together as a group, and celebrate things worth celebrating, like babies or birthdays.”


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