Will COVID-19 Cripple a Weary Health Care Workforce?

As the COVID-19 pandemic approaches its fourth month in the U.S., health care providers are growing weary.  

In January, before the pandemic took hold, more than four in 10 physicians reporting feeling burnout, according to the American Medical Association.  And RNnetwork found an even greater percentage of nurses, 62%, feel “regularly burned out at work.”

Now the COVID-19 pandemic has further fatigued an already stressed workforce.  It’s also added new concerns.  Providers are worried, for example, about having enough protective equipment, getting sick themselves or bringing the virus home to their families.  Collectively, the concerns are taking their toll on clinicians.

A recent Gallup poll found just 37% of health care providers feel “very confident they’ll be able to successfully do their job if the outbreak continues.”  Health care systems are taking note.  One hospital system in New Orleans, for example, implemented “wellness visits” for its workers.  The short chats with medical staff are on-shift check-ins to assess wellbeing and prevent mental exhaustion.

Recognizing the effect of COVID-19 on health professionals in their state, New Jersey’s governor and state attorney general launched an emergency licensing program.  Their plan allows recent graduates of nursing, physician assistant, pharmacy and respiratory care therapy programs to apply for a temporary license, even though the students have not passed their licensing exams yet.  Those approved must work under supervision, with a license that expires when the state of emergency ends.  

But for the short-term, the program opens the door for thousands of newly-minted clinicians to help fill the urgent need and lighten the burden on existing providers.  

Similarly, at least 13 medical schools, according to the American Association of Medical Colleges, have allowed students to graduate early.  While the logistics of adding new doctors to the rolls are being worked out, states such as California, Illinois and New York have asked recently retired physicians to rejoin the ranks. 

Aside from the obvious impact to providers’ personal and mental health, the current situation could have long-lasting effects on patients and their ability to access health care.

A shortage of seasoned health care professionals could be among the first issues to arise.  Burnout is one of the top reasons experienced physicians stop practicing.  Coronavirus could accelerate the pace at which they walk away, leaving a smaller workforce to handle an ever-increasing patient population.  

The pandemic is also pushing some young physicians to the brink.  Residency, a notoriously exhausting period under normal circumstances, has gotten even harder because of COVID-19.  Some residents are calling it quits, interrupting the pipeline of new doctors.

Patients with certain conditions, such as headache, already struggle to see a specialist.  Having fewer providers will only exacerbate these patients’ access challenges, compounding the burden of uncontrolled headache and migraine disease. 

Policymakers looking to minimize economic damage have cautiously begun empowering some businesses and communities to reopen.  But they must also put effort into protecting the health care workforce, both for the sake of heroic health care providers and for the patients who will need them long after the pandemic subsides. 

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