Practice Management

Burnout risk may be exacerbated by COVID crisis


The impact on women doctors

In a recent Journal of Hospital Medicine article entitled “Collateral Damage: How COVID-19 is Adversely Impacting Women Physicians,” hospitalist Yemisi Jones, MD, medical director of continuing medical education at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, and colleagues argue that preexisting gender inequities in compensation, academic rank and leadership positions for physicians have made the COVID-19 crisis even more burdensome on female hospitalists.1

Dr. Yemisi Jones, Medical Director of Continuing Medical Education at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center

Dr. Yemisi Jones

“Increased childcare and schooling obligations, coupled with disproportionate household responsibilities and an inability to work from home, will likely result in female hospitalists struggling to meet family needs while pandemic-related work responsibilities are ramping up,” they write. COVID may intensify workplace inequalities, with a lack of recognition of the undue strain that group policies place on women.

“Often women suffer in silence,” said coauthor Jennifer O’Toole, MD, MEd, director of education in the division of hospital medicine at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and program director of the internal medicine–pediatrics residency. “We are not always the best self-advocates, although many of us are working on that.”

When women in hospital medicine take leadership roles, these often tend to involve mutual support activities, taking care of colleagues, and promoting collaborative work environments, Dr. Jones added. The stereotypical example is the committee that organizes celebrations when group members get married or have babies.

Dr. Jennifer O'Toole, Director of Education in the Division of Hospital Medicine at CCHMC and Program Director of the Internal Medicine-Pediatrics Residency

Dr. Jennifer O'Toole

These activities can take a lot of time, she said. “We need to pay attention to that kind of role in our groups, because it’s important to the cohesiveness of the group. But it often goes unrecognized and doesn’t translate into the currency of promotion and leadership in medicine. When women go for promotions in the future, how will what happened during the COVID crisis impact their opportunities?”

What is the answer to overcoming these systemic inequities? Start with making sure women are part of the leadership team, with responsibilities for group policies, schedules, and other important decisions. “Look at your group’s leadership – particularly the higher positions. If it’s not diverse, ask why. ‘What is it about the structure of our group?’ Make a more concerted effort in your recruitment and retention,” Dr. Jones said.

The JHM article also recommends closely monitoring the direct and indirect effects of COVID-19 on female hospitalists, inquiring specifically about the needs of women in the organization, and ensuring that diversity, inclusion, and equity efforts are not suspended during the pandemic. Gender-based disparities in pay also need a closer look, and not just one time but reviewed periodically and adjusted accordingly.

Mentoring for early career women is important, but more so is sponsorship – someone in a high-level leadership role in the group sponsoring women who are rising up the career ladder, Dr. O’Toole said. “Professional women tend to be overmentored and undersponsored.”

What are the answers?

Ultimately, listening is key to try to help people get through the pandemic, Dr. Washburn said. “People become burned out when they feel leadership doesn’t understand their needs or doesn’t hear their concerns. Our group leaders all do clinical work, so they are seen as one of us. They try very hard; they have listening ears. But listening is just the first step. Next step is to work creatively to get the identified needs met.”

A few years ago, Johns Hopkins developed training in enhanced communication in health care for all hospital providers, including nurses and doctors, encouraging them to get trained in how to actively listen and address their patients’ emotional and social experiences as well as disease, Dr. Washburn explained. Learning how to listen better to patients can enhance skills at listening to colleagues, and vice versa. “We recognize the importance of better communication – for reducing sentinel events in the hospital and also for preventing staff burnout.”

Dr. Barnes also does physician coaching, and says a lot of that work is helping people achieve clarity on their core values. “Healing patients is a core identify for physicians; we want to take care of people. But other things can get in the way of that, and hospitalist groups can work at minimizing those barriers. We also need to learn, as hospitalists, that we work in a group. You need to be creative in how you do your team building, especially now, when you can no longer get together for dinner. Whatever it is, how do we bring our team back together? The biggest source of support for many hospitalists, beyond their family, is the group.”

Dr. Case said there is a longer-term need to study the root causes of burnout in hospitalists and to identify the issues that cause job stress. “What is modifiable? How can we tackle it? I see that as big part of my job every day. Being a physician is hard enough as it is. Let’s work to resolve those issues that add needlessly to the stress.”

“I think the pandemic brought a magnifying glass to how important a concern staff stress is,” Ms. Panek said. Resilience is important.

“We were working in our group on creating a culture that values trust and transparency, and then the COVID crisis hit,” she said. “But you can still keep working on those things. We would not have been as good or as positive as we were in managing this crisis without that preexisting culture to draw upon. We always said it was important. Now we know that’s true.”


1. Jones Y et al. Collateral Damage: How COVID-19 Is Adversely Impacting Women Physicians. J Hosp Med. 2020 August;15(8):507-9.


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