Greatest COVID caseload
Joshua Case, MD, hospitalist medical director for 16 acute care hospitals of Northwell Health serving metropolitan New York City and Long Island, said his group’s hospitalists and other staff worked incredibly hard during the surge of COVID-19 patients in New York. “Northwell likely cared for more COVID patients than any other health care system in the U.S., if not the world.
“It’s vastly different now. We went from a peak of thousands of cases per day down to about 70-90 new cases a day across our system. We’re lucky our system recognized that COVID could be an issue early on, with all of the multifaceted stressors on patient care,” Dr. Case said. “We’ve done whatever we could to give people time off, especially as the census started to come down. We freed up as many supportive mental health services as we could, working with the health system’s employee assistance program.”
Northwell gave out numbers for the psychiatry department, with clinicians available 24/7 for a confidential call, along with outside volunteers and a network of trauma psychologists. “Our system also provided emergency child care for staff, including hospitalists, wherever we could, drawing upon community resources,” Dr. Case added.
“We recognize that we’re all in the same foxhole. That’s been a helpful attitude – recognizing that it’s okay to be upset in a crisis and to have trouble dealing with what’s going on,” he said. “We need to acknowledge that some of us are suffering and try to encourage people to face it head on. For a lot of physicians, especially those who were redeployed here from other departments, it was important just to have us ask if they were doing okay.”
Brian Schroeder, MHA, FACHE, FHM, assistant vice president for hospital and emergency medicine for Atrium Health, based in Charlotte, N.C., said one of the biggest sources of stress on his staff has been the constant pace of change – whether local hospital protocols, state policies, or guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The updating is difficult to keep up with. A lot of our physicians get worried and anxious that they’re not following the latest guidelines or correctly doing what they should be doing to care for COVID patients. One thing we’ve done to alleviate some of that fear and anxiety is through weekly huddles with our hospital teams, focusing on changes relevant to their work. We also have weekly ‘all-hands’ meetings for our 250 providers across 13 acute and four postacute facilities.”
Before COVID, it was difficult to get everyone together as one big group from hospitals up to 5 hours apart, but with the Microsoft Teams platform, they can all meet together.
“At the height of the pandemic, we’d convene weekly and share national statistics, organizational statistics, testing updates, changes to protocols,” Mr. Schroeder said. As the pace of change has slowed, these meetings were cut back to monthly. “Our physicians feel we are passing on information as soon as we get it. They know we’ll always tell them what we know.”
Sarah Richards, MD, assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, who heads the Society of Hospital Medicine’s Well-Being Task Force, formed to address staff stress in the COVID environment, said there are things that health care systems can do to help mitigate job stress and burnout. But broader issues may need to be addressed at a national level. “SHM is trying to understand work-related stress – and to identify resources that could support doctors, so they can spend more of their time doing what they enjoy most, which is taking care of patients,” she said.
“We also recognize that people have had very different experiences, depending on geography, and at the individual level stressors are experienced very differently,” Dr. Richard noted. “One of the most common stressors we’ve heard from doctors is the challenge of caring for patients who are lonely and isolated in their hospital rooms, suffering and dying in new ways. In low-incidence areas, doctors are expressing guilt because they aren’t under as much stress as their colleagues. In high-incidence areas, doctors are already experiencing posttraumatic stress disorder.”
SHM’s Well-Being Task Force is working on a tool to help normalize these stressors and encourage open conversations about mental health issues. A guide called “HM COVID Check-in Guide for Self & Peers” is designed to help hospitalists break the culture of silence around well-being and burnout during COVID-19 and how people are handling and processing the pandemic experience. It is expected to be completed later this year, Dr. Richards said. Other SHM projects and resources for staff support are also in the works.