Clinicians’ well-being is a “crisis” of grave import to the public health and a top issue that he hopes to get more squarely on the public radar screen, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, MBA, said May 6 in a “fireside chat” with SHM president Danielle Scheurer, MD, MSRC, SFHM, at SHM Converge, the annual conference of the Society of Hospital Medicine.
“This is a crisis that I don’t know that the country recognizes is fully important,” Dr. Murthy said. “I don’t think that most people in the public recognize just how extraordinarily difficult it is, for many clinicians, to come to practice. And if the clinicians continue to burn out at the rate that they are – in addition to the humanitarian crisis of people who are struggling that we should all feel concern about – it will impact care in a profound way.” He said part of his plan is a “national agenda” for clinician well-being, with a clear pathway for creating an environment more conducive to providing quality patient care.
Dr. Scheurer said that this was “welcome news and wonderful to hear.”
“Fortunately or unfortunately, now I do think it’s more in the front seat,” she said, adding that “this notion of ‘heal thyself,’ we know doesn’t work and these are really systemic ailments that we all have to tackle together.”
Dr. Murthy, a hospitalist by training, recently began his second term as Surgeon General, having served under President Obama and appointed to the post again by President Biden. This second appointment is different in the knowledge he has about the job from the start, in the enormity of the public health challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and in the political tenor of the country.
He said one of his main priorities is to “recenter our public health response” with scientists and public health leaders regaining their proper role.
“Have them be the voices that are actually speaking directly to the public, not in a way that’s biased by the politics or by politicians, but it’s really guided again by the science and substance of what we know needs to happen,” he said.
The response to COVID goes beyond continuing an aggressive vaccination and testing campaign, he said. The pandemic has given rise to worse mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, substance use disorders, and delays in care for other medical conditions for fear of infection – and these are all priorities, Dr. Murthy said.
One “silver lining” of the pandemic is the expansion of telehealth, but this needs refining and persistence to make it work optimally for all patients, he said.
“We have to ensure that that expansion continues and that it’s even – meaning that there are so many parts of the country where broadband access is a challenge for patients, so they don’t have the benefits of telemedicine,” he said. “We also need to ensure that these systems are integrated across our current systems, across hospitals so that we’re not creating more work for clinicians when it comes to utilizing this technology to reach their patients.”
Clinicians – typically viewed as coming to Capitol Hill only to push for higher payment or changes to medical liability laws – need to use their trusted voices to raise the profile of preventive care and identifying and fixing social barriers related to health, such as transportation issues and unsafe neighborhoods, Dr. Murthy said.
“No one really celebrates the heart attack that was prevented or the asthma that was prevented – we celebrate the illness that took place and was cured,” he said. “We know as clinicians that if you really want to reduce human suffering that you have to focus on the prevention side of the house, and I think that unless our colleagues in medicine and in public health come together and advocate for greater investments in prevention, or a national agenda around prevention, my worry is that it won’t naturally develop.”
On vaccine hesitancy, Dr. Murthy said that the United States needs to work more in increasing confidence that the vaccines will work, and in access to vaccines, but, mostly, in motivation.
“What we’ve learned is that ultimately trusted voices are what make all the difference when it comes to vaccination,” he said. “It’s one of these large, people-powered movements that we have to build in our community.”
Dr. Scheurer noted that, with hospitalists in 90% of U.S. hospitals, they can play a big role. “If we can all do our part then we’ll at least take the ball further down the field.”
Dr. Murthy added that, since residency, when he cared for young cancer patients near his own age, he has focused on “finding meaning now” in his work and life. The pandemic has reinforced this, and he doesn’t necessarily want life to go back to exactly how it was before the pandemic.
“Many of us are thinking – ‘Is there actually a better way for us to live our lives and design our workdays and our choices other than what we were doing prepandemic? Can we center our lives more around the people we love and care about, can we design our work to accommodate our family as opposed to the other way around, to always make our families accommodate our work?’ – These are the kinds of choices that we have to make as a society.”