Ten changes that could keep clinicians in the workforce in a pandemic



COVID-19’s relentless toll on the clinical workforce inspired four doctors to draft an action plan to stem the exits and help colleagues preserve their physical and mental health.

Eileen Barrett, MD

Dr. Eileen Barrett

Indeed, a recent poll of 1,000 health care workers conducted Sept. 2-8 by Morning Consult, showed that 18% of medical workers polled quit their jobs during the pandemic. Additionally, 31% said they had at least thought about leaving their work.

“As physicians, educators, peers and friends of COVID-19 responders, we are gravely concerned about our colleagues’ exhaustion, burnout, and disillusionment,” wrote lead author Eileen Barrett, MD, and coauthors of the new action plan, which was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

The 10-point, one-page checklist includes providing “practical support in the areas that clinicians identify as causing emotional stress or moral injury,” such as managing anger and grief when patients have chosen not to be vaccinated or confronting misinformation.

“Those are the things that are making people’s mental health worse” psychiatrist Jessi Gold, MD, MS, said in an interview. “I don’t think I’ve seen that mentioned other places.”

Among the other action items are:

  • Reduce administrative tasks that are not “mission critical,” such as mandatory training that has no evidence of improving patient outcomes and meetings that could be skipped.
  • Offer free and confidential resources to support clinicians’ mental health, such as easy access to crisis hotlines and peer support groups.
  • Maintain transparency about personal protective equipment and contingency plans when there are shortages to restore trust.
  • Encourage clinicians to use vacation time; leaders should model this.
  • Implement suicide prevention strategies, including wellness check-ins for clinicians in hard-hit areas.

The action plan was based on the authors’ own experiences and the stories of colleagues and information in literature. It includes 10 changes health care leaders could make to help retain providers who may be on the brink of leaving their jobs or leaving medicine

Action items intended to be easily achievable, low cost

Dr. Barrett, who is a hospitalist in Albuquerque, said the goal was to present easily achievable and low-cost action items that clinicians and health care leaders could use as a starting point when change seems insurmountable and evidence on what works is slow to come.

She said one of the things that spurred her to coauthor the list was becoming aware of other clinicians’ “secret shame” in thinking about leaving medicine.

“Maybe a person who is not being listened to could take this journal article and say ‘we don’t know where to start. It looks like we can start here,’ ” said Dr. Barrett, who is also an associate professor in the division of hospital medicine, department of internal medicine, at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.

She noted that some of the good ideas floated around did not make the list, because they required daunting budget commitments and too much time to put into place.

Numerous other proposed solutions were of the wrong tone, according to Dr. Barrett.

“It’s not just about a hug or a piece of pizza,” she said.

Jessi Gold, MD, gets ready for a telehealth appointment from her home office.

Dr. Jessi Gold

Dr. Gold, who is an assistant professor at Washington University, St. Louis, and specializes in the mental health of health care workers, noted that, even though the list was pared to 10 action items, it is still hard for health care organizations to prioritize mental health.

“Many hospitals are still struggling with the active bleed of the pandemic and financially recovering,” she said. “If you’re dealing with a full ER and people are still dying of COVID and you don’t have the resources to support them, it’s really hard to then find magic money to deal with mental health. I’d love for that to be true.”

Every organization, however, can start with removing questions about mental and physical health diagnoses from credentialing and employment applications, which is one of the items on the list, she said.

“It’s the lowest-bar thing that you can fix for making people in crisis not fear getting help,” she said. That change must come on a state-by-state and individual hospital level.


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