Pandemics, Physicians, and PTSD: How is our Healthcare System Protecting our Caregivers?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the world watched as physicians took on the unimaginable. They were praised as “heroes” fighting “unprecedented times,” while tales of overrun hospitals that led to difficult decisions, makeshift protective equipment out of trashbags and other supply closet goods, and gut-wrenching goodbyes over lagging zoom phone calls were spread on both social media and mainstream news. Hearts hurt for the patients and their loved ones, but also for the physicians who were fighting this battle. Socially distanced parades and celebrations were organized to thank these healthcare heroes for stepping up when the world needed them most. On the outside, it seemed as if these “heroes” weren’t fighting this battle alone… until suddenly they were.

Three years later the world has moved on, but have our healthcare heroes? Or have their experiences resulted in long lasting effects that will follow them the rest of their careers? As the world moved on and hospitals slowed down, we have to wonder how much support our first responders really received behind the facade of all the parades or celebrations. And once we get to the core, what emotional wounds remain?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is often seen as a soldier’s burden to carry, but the war that was fought in the hospitals in 2020 was just as admirable, and the wounds cut just as deep.

Witnessing these tragic elements generates a great deal of emotion – fear, worry, sadness, anger, and grief, to mention just a few. And our training typically does not teach us how to deal with these emotions, setting in motion the perfect breeding ground for PTSD,” says Dr. Gail Gazelle, physician coach and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Aside from the impacts of a global pandemic, doctors, physicians, and medical staff encounter a harsh reality daily. The consequences of illnesses, socioeconomic disparities, and rising violence in their communities. The toll this takes on their emotional well-being, a condition known as vicarious traumatization, is under increasing scrutiny. While demand and workloads for physicians continue to grow, so too do concerns about the debilitating effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But how can physicians protect themselves from the emotional toll of their profession?

As the common adage says, “you cannot pour from an empty cup,” Dr. Gazelle believes that focusing on yourself through mindfulness practices and self-care allows you to avoid burnout that can come from vicarious traumatization. Some of these tools and tips for avoiding burnout can be found in her book  “Mindful MD: 6 Ways Mindfulness Restores Your Autonomy and Cures Healthcare Burnout.” 

In the aftermath of tragedy, physicians should not be solely responsible for their own mental wellbeing. Recognizing the urgency of the situation, hospitals and health systems are beginning to take steps to help physicians and healthcare workers cope with vicarious traumatization:

1. Organizing Debriefing “Huddles”

After major incidents such as school shootings, hospitals are now organizing debriefing “huddles.” These gatherings provide a platform for healthcare workers to discuss and process their emotions in a safe and supportive environment.

2. Forums like the Schwartz Center Rounds

The importance of forums like the Schwartz Center Rounds, where clinicians can talk openly and without stigma about the emotions they’re experiencing. These discussions offer opportunities for healthcare professionals to connect and share their experiences, further reducing the emotional burden.

3. Access to Resources

Health systems are increasingly ensuring that Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) and other mental health resources are readily available to all clinicians. Quick and accessible support systems are vital in providing immediate help and facilitating the healing process.

By implementing these policies, the healthcare industry has the potential to improve patient care and medical practices. Decreased burnout in physicians decreases turnover and eventually leads to more experienced physicians. In addition, measures such as huddles, forums, and resources could give physicians the tools they need to be more self-reliant and emotionally regulated. 

It is key that clinicians learn tools to help them process the emotions that arise. The first and most important tool is simply allowing the emotions, and not pushing them away or sweeping them under the carpet. Processed emotions are much less likely to lead to PTSD,” says Dr. Gazelle.

The healthcare industry now has the opportunity to thank their healthcare heroes in a way that is much more meaningful than a parade or celebration – they have the potential to provide a support system and the tools necessary to combat the harsh realities of their jobs. In the aftermath of a global pandemic, understanding and addressing the emotional toll on our medical heroes is not only a moral imperative but an essential step toward building a healthcare system that truly cares for those who care for us.