Beyond the disease: The overlooked burdens of COVID-19

By Physician Sense
Published April 2, 2020

Key Takeaways

COVID-19 may be the ultimate stress test for the modern healthcare system. While it’s impossible to say with certainty how the system will stand up to coronavirus, obvious trends are beginning to emerge.

Already, we're seeing three major ones: 

  • Doctors falling ill

  • Physician burnout

  • Harm to the financial wellbeing of doctors

Those trends will translate into tangible effects for physicians and other healthcare workers on the frontlines of healthcare, as well as the system itself. Here's how.

Physicians falling ill

Unfortunately, this looks like a prevailing trend we’ll have to contend with for some time. Physicians and other healthcare workers are falling ill. This is perhaps the most troubling consequence of the pandemic. Recently, The New York Timesreported that of Spain’s total COVID-19 patients, 14% are medical professionals. And today, the NYT reported HCPs in New York City are getting sick.

The reports are troubling for two reasons. There’s the human toll of illness and loss of life, and there’s the logistical toll of an already overburdened healthcare system losing more physicians and other HCPs to COVID-19. By our estimation, this looks like the lead domino of COVID-19’s consequences for doctors.

Driving the trend is the observation that many Americans appear to be missing the severity of COVID-19, thinking that because they are young and/or healthy, they are safe. This fails to take into account the possibility that they might infect those with compromised immune systems -- or the healthcare workers who must care for them. Reports have emerged of so-called coronavirus partiesweddings taking place despite social distancing, crowds congregating on California and Florida beaches, and spring breakers disregarding the dire nature of the pandemic. The Los Angeles Times recently sounded the alarm in a physician-authored opinion piece: People are disregarding calls to isolate and getting doctors sick.

Meanwhile, physicians around the globe are supporting drastic shutdown measures in increasing numbers. A recent, exclusive MDLinx survey shows that 51% of physicians around the world feel that COVID-19 represents a severe threat. It’s a trend that’s perhaps in part driven by the observation that physicians and other healthcare workers appear to be sicker than other patients.

"We know the high mortality in older people, but for reasons that we don't understand, front-line health care workers are at great risk for serious illness despite their younger age," Dr. Peter Hotez, professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, recently said on CNN.

Perhaps stress is a factor here and HCP immune systems are so rundown from the pressure of caring for the sick while contending with the added pressures of inadequate PPE and insufficient numbers of ventilators.

Physician burnout

Unfortunately, stress and pressure are only ratcheting up. Doctor burnout is a vital consideration during this time of crisis, and it’s one that’s largely been absent from lay-media reports. While burnout numbers have declined, they still represent a cause for concern under current circumstances.

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