Moral distress in the COVID era weighs on hospitalists


What to call it

Michael J. Asken, PhD, director of provider well-being at UPMC Pinnacle Harrisburg (Pa.), has questioned in print the use of the military and wartime term “moral injury” when applied to a variety of less serious physician stressors.4 More recently, however, he observed, “The pandemic has muted or erased many of the distinctions between medical care and military conflict. ... The onslaught and volume of critical patients and resulting deaths is beyond what most providers have ever contemplated as part of care.”5

Michael J. Asken, PhD, director of provider well-being at UPMC Pinnacle Harrisburg in Pennsylvania

Dr. Michael J. Asken

In a recent interview with the Hospitalist, he said: “While I initially resisted using the term moral injury, especially pre-COVID, because it was not equivalent to the moral injury created by war, I have relented a bit.” The volume of deaths and the apparent dangers to providers themselves reflect some of the critical aspects of war, and repetitive, intense, and/or incessant ethical challenges may have longer term negative psychological or emotional effects.

“Feeling emotional pain in situations of multiple deaths is to be expected and, perhaps, should even be welcomed as a sign of retained humanity and a buffer against burnout and cynicism in these times of unabating stress,” Dr. Asken said. “This is only true, however, if the emotional impact is tolerable and not experienced in repetitive extremes.”

Courtesy Avera Health

Dr. Clarissa Barnes, hospitalist and physician advisor at Avera Health in Sioux Falls, S.D.

“These things are real,” said Clarissa Barnes, MD, a physician adviser, hospitalist at Avera McKennan Hospital in Sioux Falls, S.D., and former medical director of Avera’s LIGHT Program, a wellness-oriented service for clinicians. Dr. Barnes herself caught the virus on the job but has since recovered.

“Physicians don’t see their work as an occupation. It’s their core identity: I am a doctor; I practice medicine. If things are being done in ways I don’t think are right, that’s fundamentally a breach,” she said. “As internists, we have an opportunity to forestall death whenever we can and, if not, promote a peaceful death. That’s what made me choose this specialty. I think there’s value in allowing a person to end well. But when that doesn’t happen because of social or administrative reasons, that’s hard.”

Where is the leadership?

“A lot of moral injury comes down to the individual health system and its leaders. Some have done well; others you hear saying things that make you question whether these are the people you want leading the organization. Hospitalists need to have a clear value framework and an idea of how to negotiate things when decisions don’t match that framework,” Dr. Barnes said.

“Sometimes administrators have additional information that they’re not sharing,” she added. “They’re caught between a rock and a hard place regarding the decisions they have to make, but they need to be more transparent and not hold things so close to their vest while thinking they are helping clinicians [by doing so]. Physicians need to understand why they are being asked to do things counter to what they believe is appropriate.”

David Oliver, MD, a geriatrics and internal medicine consultant at the Royal Berkshire Hospital just west of London in the United Kingdom

Dr. David Oliver

David Oliver, MD, a geriatrics and internal medicine consultant at Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading, England, also practices as a hospital physician, a role similar to the hospitalist in the United States. “In any system, in any environment, the job of being a doctor, nurse, or other health professional carries a lot of responsibility. That is a timeless, inherent stress of medical practice. With COVID, we’ve seen a lot of emotional burdens – a whole separate set of problems outside of your control, where you are responsible for care but don’t have accountability,” he said.

“People like me, hospital doctors, are used to chronic workforce issues in the National Health Service. But we didn’t sign up to come and get COVID and be hospitalized ourselves.” More than 850 frontline health care providers in the U.K. have so far died from the virus, Dr. Oliver said. “I saw five patients die in 90 minutes one day in April. That’s above and beyond normal human capacity.”

In England specifically, he said, it has exposed underlying structural issues and serious workforce gaps, unfilled vacancies, and a much lower number of ICU beds per 100,000 population than the United States or Europe. And there is consistent pressure to send patients home in order to empty beds for new patients.

But a range of supportive services is offered in U.K. hospitals, such as making senior clinicians available to speak to frontline clinicians, providing mentorship and a sounding board. The Point of Care Foundation has helped to disseminate the practice of Schwartz Rounds, a group reflective practice forum for health care teams developed by the Schwartz Center for Compassionate Healthcare in Boston.

“We don’t need this clap-for-the-NHS heroes stuff,” Dr. Oliver said. “We need an adequate workforce and [better] working conditions. What happened on the front lines of the pandemic was heroic – all done by local clinical teams. But where was the government – the centralized NHS? A lot of frontline clinicians aren’t feeling valued, supported, or listened to.”


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