Soon after the COVID-19 pandemic began last spring, Christine Choi, DO, a second-year medical resident at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, volunteered to enter COVID-19 patient rooms. Since then, she has worked countless nights in the intensive care unit in full protective gear, often tasked with giving the sickest patients and their families the grim choice between intubation or near-certain death.
“I’m offering this guy two terrible options, and that’s how I feel about work: I can’t fix this for you and it sucks, and I’m sorry that the choices I’m giving you are both terrible,” Choi told the Los Angeles Times’ Soumya Karlamangla about one patient encounter.
While Choi exhibits an “almost startlingly positive attitude” in her work, it’s no match for the psychological burdens placed on her shoulders by the global pandemic, Karlamangla wrote. When an older female COVID-19 patient died in the hospital recently, her husband — in the same hospital with the same diagnosis — soon began struggling to breathe. Sensing that he had little time left, Choi held a mobile phone at his bedside so that each of his children could come on screen to tell him they loved him. “I was just bawling in my [personal protective equipment],” Choi said. “The sound of the family members crying — I probably will never forget that,” she said.
It was not the first time the young doctor helped family members say goodbye to a loved one, and it would not be the last. Health care providers like Choi have had to work through unimaginable tragedies and unprecedented circumstances because of COVID-19, with little time to dedicate to their own mental health or well-being.
It has been nearly a year since the US reported what was believed at the time to be its first coronavirus death in Washington State. Since then, the pandemic death toll has mushroomed to nearly 500,000 nationwide, including 49,000 Californians. These numbers are shocking, and yet they do not capture the immeasurable emotional weight that falls on the health care providers with the most intimate view of COVID-19’s deadly progression. “The horror of the pandemic has unfolded largely outside public view and inside hospitals, piling a disproportionate share of the trauma on the people whose work takes them inside their walls,” Karlamangla wrote.
Experts are deeply concerned about the psychological and physical burdens that providers must bear, and the fact that there is still no end in sight. “At least with a natural disaster, it happens, people get scattered all over the place, property gets damaged or flooded, but then we begin to rebuild,” Lawrence Palinkas, PhD, MA, a medical anthropologist at USC, told Karlamangla. “We’re not there yet, and we don’t know when that will actually occur.”
Burned Out and Exhausted
A new CHCF survey of 1,202 California doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and behavioral health specialists confirms that levels of burnout and exhaustion are rising as the pandemic wears on. The survey, conducted January 4 to 14, 2021, is the second in a three-part series assessing COVID-19-related effects on health care providers.
Sixty-eight percent of providers said they feel emotionally drained from their work, 59% feel burned out, 57% feel overworked, and 50% feel frustrated. The poll asked providers who say they feel burned out what contributes most to that viewpoint. One doctor from the Central Valley wrote:
“Short staffed due to people out with COVID. I’m seeing three times as many patients, with no time to chart or catch up. Little appreciation or contact from my bosses. I have never had an N95 [mask]. The emotional toll this pandemic is taking. Being sick myself and spreading it to my wife and young kids. Still not fully recovered but needing to be at work due to physician shortages. Lack of professional growth, and a sense of lack of appreciation at work and feeling overworked. The sadness of the COVID-related deaths and the stories that go along with the disease. That’s a lot of stuff to unpack.”
Safety-net providers and health care workers with larger populations of patients of color are more likely to experience emotional hardships at work. As we know well by now, COVID-19 exacerbates the health disparities that have long burdened people of color and disproportionately harms communities with fewer health care and economic resources.
Women Bear the Brunt
The pandemic has been especially challenging for female health providers, who compose 77% of health care workers with direct patient contact. “The pandemic exacerbated gender inequities in formal and informal work, and in the distribution of home responsibilities, and increased the risk of unemployment and domestic violence,” an international group of experts wrote in the Lancet. “While trying to fulfill their professional responsibilities, women had to meet their families’ needs, including childcare, home schooling, care for older people, and home care.”
For one female doctor from the Bay Area who responded to the CHCF survey, the extra burdens of the pandemic have been unrelenting: “Having to work more, lack of safe, affordable, available childcare while I’m working. As a single mother, working 15 hours straight, then having to care for my daughter when I get home. Just exhausted with no days off. So many Zoom meetings all day long. Miss my family and friends.”
It is unclear how the pandemic will affect the health care workforce in the long term. For now, the damage “can be measured in part by a surge of early retirements and the desperation of community hospitals struggling to hire enough workers to keep their emergency rooms running,” Andrew Jacobs reported in the New York Times.
One of the early retirements Jacobs cited was Sheetal Khedkar Rao, MD, a 42-year-old internist in suburban Chicago. Last October, she decided to stop practicing medicine after “the emotional burden and moral injury became too much to bear,” she said. Two of the main factors driving her decision were a 30% pay cut to compensate for the decline in revenue from primary care visits and the need to spend more time at home after her two preteen children switched to remote learning.
“Everyone says doctors are heroes and they put us on a pedestal, but we also have kids and aging parents to worry about,” Rao said.
Working Through Unremitting Sickness and Death
In addition to the psychological burden, health care providers must cope with a harsh physical toll. People of color account for most COVID-19 cases and deaths among health care workers, according to a KFF issue brief. Some studies show that health care workers of color “are more likely to report reuse of or inadequate access to [personal protective equipment] and to work in clinical settings with greater exposure to patients with COVID-19.”
“Lost on the Frontline,” a collaboration of Kaiser Health News and the Guardian, has counted more than 3,400 deaths among US health care workers from COVID-19. Eighty-six percent of the workers who died were under age 60, and nurses accounted for roughly one-third of the deaths.
“Lost on the Frontline” provides the most comprehensive picture available of health care worker deaths, because the US still lacks a uniform system to collect COVID-19 morbidity and mortality data among health care workers. A year into the project, the federal government has decided to take action. Officials at the US Department of Health and Human Services cited the project when asking the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine for a rapid expert consultation to understand the causes of deaths among health care workers during the pandemic.
The National Academies’ report, published December 10, recommends the “adoption and use of a uniform national framework for collecting, recording, and reporting mortality and morbidity data” along with the development of national reporting standards for a core set of morbidity impacts, including mental well-being and psychological effects related to working through public health crises. Some health care experts said the data gathering could be modeled on the federal government’s World Trade Center Health Program, which provides no-cost medical monitoring and treatment for workers who responded to the 9/11 terrorist attacks 20 years ago.
“We have a great obligation to people who put their lives on the line for the nation,” Victor J. Dzau, MD, president of the National Academy of Medicine, told Jacobs.