Medical practices are navigating a host of unique challenges in light of COVID-19, including reduced staff, the newness of telemedicine and how to safely reopen for non-urgent care. Amidst all of this, practices also need to address provider and staff mental health.
Fortunately, most practices are actively doing just that. Over half of medical practice leaders say they have taken active steps to address their providers’ and staff’s mental health amid COVID-19. According to the poll by MGMA, common actions include offering mental health counseling/services (43%), check-ins/transparency (32%) and wellness programs/rooms (9%).
“My door is open for everyone,” one leader explained. Others teams have partnered with psychiatry and social work departments to provide virtual discussion groups. Some are offering online meditations, virtual gaming groups, coffee hours and other types of colleague-to-colleague support.
Still, a worrying 47% of healthcare leaders answered “no” when asked whether they have addressed employee mental health amid the pandemic. As practices address an abundance of issues in response to COVID-19, the mental health of staff and providers needs to be front and center.
Healthcare worker mental health is a major challenge
Before COVID-19, healthcare workers were already vulnerable to depression and burnout. Mental health experts now fear even more will be prone to trauma-related disorders. They also acknowledge how the effects of that trauma extend beyond the individual.
On May 13, 2020 the United Nations released a report about COVID-19 and the Need for Action on Mental Health. The report emphasizes that one result of the pandemic is a likely “long-term upsurge in the number and severity of mental health problems.” Moreover, experts write that ensuring the mental health of healthcare workers is “a critical factor in sustaining COVID-19 preparedness, response and recovery.”
Yet reports keep streaming in from nurses, doctors and paramedics suffering from PTSD and burnout. Frontline providers – even those with decades of experience treating severely ill patients – say that COVID-19 is unlike anything they’ve seen before.
Now is the time to make sure your practice is offering providers and staff the mental health support they need.
Addressing provider and health mental health amid COVID-19
Healthcare leaders emphasize three important ways to address provider and staff mental health amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Your practice may already be doing these, but ask yourself: “Is there an area we could improve?”
1. Focus on emotional health and well-being
For many people – healthcare workers included – living during a pandemic has been a roller coster of emotions. One day you feel OK, the next you’re in a heightened state of anxiety and the following day you’re checked out.
It’s crucial to help providers and staff focus on their emotional health and well-being. The CDC recommends:
- Taking breaks from the constant news updates (constantly hearing about the pandemic can be stressful).
- Self-nurturing, including eating a balanced diet, sleeping adequately, meditating and abstaining from alcohol and drugs.
- Setting aside time to unwind with your favorite activities.
- Talking with friends, family and co-workers to express your feelings and anxiety.
Reminding providers that self-care is as important as caring for patients. Try to continually emphasize the significance of their work and that the sacrifices they are making are for the good of society.
2. Offer resources to providers and staff
Practice leaders shoulder provider resources to help teams work through adversity. As MGMGA summarizes, there are a few key aspects to this type of support.
First, review and adjust schedules (when legal and possible) to ensure that you rotate employees from high-stress to low-stress roles.
Second, address your team’s wellbeing. As mentioned above, regularly check in to assess how they’re coping and to ask about their needs.
Finally, provide psychosocial assistance to your team. Make sure providers have access to practical resources.
3. Communicate effectively and frequently
Clear communication is one of the best ways to curb stress in uncertain times. As medical practices adopt new workflows, uncertainty is naturally high.
Practices can implement simple measures that make a big difference. Try sending bi-weekly email newsletters, calling employees at home to check-in, or starting the day with a 10-min team meeting. Any of these systems can improve communication so everyone is on the same page and feels heard.
Make sure your leadership team has a united voice, as this keeps expectations clear and makes staff and providers feel safe.
An opportunity to improve provider and staff mental health
Physician burnout was declared a public health crisis long before the COVID-19 pandemic. And while providers have shown an immense amount of compassion and resilience, we need to do more than uplift their heroic status.
Now is the perfect time to make sure members of your medical team have rock-solid support systems, including easy access to mental health services.
As one ER doctor said about the challenges of treating COVID-19 patients, “we’ve always been told to suck it up and move on.” But when our own emotional crash comes, “will there be people there to help us?”
COVID-19 resources for doctors
As you address provider and staff mental health amid the COVID-19 pandemic, make sure to reference these other valuable COVID-19 resources for physicians.
- COVID-19 Information for Healthcare Professionals (CDC)
- AMA COVID-19 Resource Center for Physicians
- A Physician’s Guide to COVID-19 (AMA)
- Respond to Coronavirus (AAFP)
- Caring for our caregivers during COVID-19 (AMA)