The science of COVID-19 carries phenomenal uncertainties, but the psychology of those who have suffered direct hits or near misses are the daily bedside challenge of all physicians, but particularly of hospitalists. We live at the front lines of disease – as one colleague put it to me, “we are the watchers on the wall.” Though we do not yet have our hoped-for, evidence-based treatment for this virus, we are familiar with acute illness. We know the rapid change of health to disease, and we know the chronically ill who suffer exacerbations of such illness. Supporting patients and their loved ones through those times is our daily practice.
On the other hand, those who have experienced only remote misses remain vulnerable in this pandemic, despite their feelings of invincibility. Those that feel invincible may be the least interested in our advice. This, too, is no strange position for a physician. We have tools to reach patients who do not reach out to us. Traditional media outlets have been saturated with headlines and talking points about this disease. Physicians who have taken to social media have been met with appreciation in some situations, but ignored, doubted, or shunned in others. In May 2020, NBC News reported an ED doctor’s attempt to dispel some COVID myths on social media. Unfortunately, his remarks were summarily dismissed. Through the frustration, we persevere.
Out of the many responsible authorities who help battle misinformation, the World Health Organization’s mythbusting website (www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/myth-busters) directly confronts many incorrect circulating ideas. My personal favorite at the time of this writing is: “Being able to hold your breath for 10 seconds or more without coughing or feeling discomfort DOES NOT mean you are free from COVID-19.”
For the policy and communication side of medicine in the midst of this pandemic, I will not claim to have a silver bullet. There are many intelligent, policy-minded people who are working on that very problem. However, as individual practitioners and as individual citizens, I can see two powerful tools that may help us move forward.
1) Confidence and humility: We live in a world of uncertainty, and we struggle against that every day. This pandemic has put our uncertainty clearly on display. However, we may also be confident in providing the best currently known care, even while holding the humility that what we know will likely change. Before COVID-19, we have all seen patients who received multiple different answers from multiple different providers. When I am willing to admit my uncertainty, I have witnessed patients’ skepticism transform into assuming an active role in their care.
For those who have suffered a direct hit or a near miss, honest conversations are vital to build a trusting physician-patient relationship. For the remote miss group, speaking candidly about our uncertainty displays our authenticity and helps combat conspiracy-type theories of ulterior motives. This becomes all the more crucial when new technologies are being deployed – for instance, a September 2020 CBS News survey showed only 21% of Americans planned to get a COVID-19 vaccine “as soon as possible.”
2) Insight into our driving emotions: While the near miss patients are likely ready to continue prevention measures, the remote miss group is often more difficult. When we do have the opportunity to discuss actions to impede the virus’ spread with the remote miss group, understanding their potentially unrecognized motivations helps with that conversation. I have shared the story of the London Blitz and the remote miss and seen people connect the dots with their own emotions. Effective counseling – expecting the feelings of invulnerability amongst the remote miss group – can support endurance with prevention measures amongst that group and help flatten the curve.
Communicating our strengths, transparently discussing our weaknesses, and better understanding underlying emotions for ourselves and our patients may help save lives. As physicians, that is our daily practice, unchanged even as medicine takes center stage in our national conversation.
Dr. Walthall completed his internal medicine residency at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, SC. After residency, he joined the faculty at MUSC in the Division of Hospital Medicine. He is also interested in systems-based care and has taken on the role of physician advisor. This essay appeared first on The Hospital Leader, the official blog of SHM.