Caring for the caregivers
Prof Renata Schoeman, Head of the MBA Health Care Leadership programme at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB), reminds us not to overlook the care that medical staff need during COVID-19.
As the Coronavirus pandemic ripples throughout the world, the pressure on medical personnel is mounting. To date, between 8% and 30% (depending on the country) of health care professionals have tested positive for COVID-19.
To date, between 8% and 30% (depending on the country) of health care professionals have tested positive for COVID-19.
Professor Renata Schoeman, Head of the MBA Health Care Leadership Programme at USB, says that the rapid spread of the virus has an enormous impact on medical professionals. She urged health care sector leaders to be aware and take measures to protect their staff, while health care workers need to be vigilant and take care of their own health while also taking care of patients.
“In an already stretched, under resourced environment, medical professionals are finding themselves powerless. They are suffering from fatigue, longer shift hours, guilt as they are not able to assist everyone, fear of running out of supplies and ventilators, and fear for their own health as well as putting their own families at risk. They are torn between ethical professional duty and the instinct to protect their own.”
In an already stretched, under-resourced environment, medical professionals are finding themselves powerless… They are torn between ethical professional duty and the instinct to protect their own.
A recent study in the COVID-19 epicentre in China, the first on the psychological impact of COVID-19 on health care professionals,1 found that 70% of the 1257 medical workers interviewed had experienced psychological distress, while 50% developed depression, 45% anxiety disorders and 35% battled with insomnia. Nurses at the frontline were at highest risk of developing these symptoms (60% of the sample across 34 hospitals were nurses and 40% doctors, while 70% were female and 30% male.)
“These symptoms may linger on long after the COVID-19 pandemic has passed,” says Prof Schoeman. “In addition, the current lockdown can further add to the psychological distress people are experiencing across the community at large, including mental health care users, and healthcare professionals.”
She says that in addition to their stressful experiences at work, health care professionals have to care for their own families.
“After a long day, they still need to take care of their children, family or elderly parents, with the fear of potentially exposing their loved ones to the virus. The public usually views health care professionals as resilient and not needing support.
The public usually views health care professionals as resilient and not needing support.
“There is also a stigma during times like this, where people avoid you, not just physical distancing, but out of not knowing what to say during this time, especially if the professional works at the frontline in high risk areas.”
Prof Schoeman says the solution lies in professionals taking care of themselves during this time, and in health care managers being aware of the stress staff are facing, and providing support.
“Acknowledge and accept feelings of anxiety and fatigue and allow yourself to normalise these feelings. Reach out to colleagues facing the same battle and provide mutual support. It’s now more than ever important for medical professionals to ensure a healthy diet, get enough rest, to exercise, and to connect with others via online virtual platforms.”
It’s now more than ever important for medical professionals to ensure a healthy diet, get enough rest, to exercise, and to connect with others via online virtual platforms.
She said leaders in the health care sector should be providing both the necessary practical support for staff to fulfil their duties in terms of equipment and medication, as well as emotional support through debriefing and counselling sessions.
Medical staff can be rotated between higher and lower pressure areas to give some sense of relief and flexibility.
“Communication is crucial. Uncertainty causes anxiety. Leaders need to communicate daily with their teams and provide accurate updates and strategies to cope with the crisis. The pandemic will not be over in a fortnight nor will it last forever and leaders need to think long term. And they need their medical personnel for the long haul – supporting and protecting them now is fundamental,” Prof Schoeman said.
The pandemic will not be over in a fortnight nor will it last forever and leaders need to think long term. And they need their medical personnel for the long haul.
Across social media, the message to the public from medical professionals has been clear: “We stay at work for you and your family, please stay home for us and our families”.
Prof Schoeman says that it’s vital for the community to support and encourage, not stigmatise, medical professionals during this time.
“Don’t avoid your friends who are out in the field! Connect with them on online platforms and never underestimate kind gestures such as ‘thinking of you’ and ‘thank you’. Buy them groceries and leave it at their door or do a virtual homework session with their children.
“Please don’t make their work even harder by spreading and sharing fake news. It can really break the spirit for someone that tries to help patients based on sound scientific principles. Rather share hopeful and positive stories of recoveries and post inspirational messages instead of doom and gloom.”
- (Lai et al (2020) https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2763229)
Prof Renata Schoeman | Head: Health Care Leadership MBA, USB
Renata Schoeman has been in full-time private practice as a general psychiatrist since 2008. As a psychiatrist, she has special interests in cognition and has been particularly active in raising awareness for ADHD in adults and children. She also holds appointments as associate professor in Leadership (USB), as head of the Health Care Leadership MBA specialisation stream, and as a virtual faculty member of USB Executive Development’s Neuroleadership programme.
She serves on the advisory boards of various pharmaceutical companies, as a director of the Psychiatric Management Group (PsychMG) and is the convenor of the South African Society of Psychiatrist (SASOP) special interest group for adult ADHD, and co-founder of the Goldilocks and The Bear Foundation.