HealthApril 20, 2020

What physician support looks like during the COVID-19 pandemic

By: Ogie M. Ezeoke, MD

On May 5, 2019, my friends and I became physicians. We were set to travel across the country to begin residencies in fields ranging from psychiatry and neurosurgery to orthopedics and pediatrics. We were committed to our future patients and to our own career paths.

Less than a year later, the commitment that is most important has become our commitment to physician support as we face the pandemic known as COVID-19.

In a matter of weeks, there have been unprecedented changes to our residency training, our hospital systems and our patient populations. For my friends who are emergency medicine interns, especially those in New York City, this has meant a trial by fire, with a surge in adult patient presentations requiring the highest levels of respiratory support. For my friends in psychiatry in large cities like Boston, this has meant being asked to extend their time in the realm of internal medicine, managing acutely ill patients who are seeking care in a health system unaccustomed to such large volumes. And for my fellow pediatric residents, this has meant concurrently rescheduling nonemergent clinic appointments and, in my hospital at least, preparing for a swell of transfers from nearby medical facilities that have had to make the difficult decision to reserve their beds for adult patients.

As the days turn to weeks, physician support through texts and social media has reminded us that we are not alone as we face the first pandemic of our careers. Support conveyed through news reports and via legislation has been crucial as well. While this has been our first pandemic, the steps we have taken together during these times will serve us well in the coming months and in the future if we ever face another global health crisis.

For more COVID-19 resources and tools, visit Health Clarity.

Staying together, even while apart

A valuable development in physician support in the era of COVID-19 has been an increase in digital communication, both with and without video. Through this communication, we are updated on news across fields and state lines. We are able to express our fears, frustrations and even the inevitable intern foibles in safe zones with our colleagues. We are able to get the unpolished truth about the front lines from our brethren who are working there and to offer them encouragement, advice and prayers for themselves as well as the families they’re taking care of.

Physicians across the country are communicating with each other more often than ever before, and while we’ve been brought together because of the difficult times through which we’re living, this communication has reminded us of the network available to us whenever we most need the support of our peers.

For those working on the front lines who may not be able to see their families, it’s important to remember that they can commiserate with colleagues and that those colleagues can remind them why they’re making these sacrifices.

Speaking up, staying united

Physician support expressed through legislative action has long been a part of medicine. For centuries, physicians have stood on Capitol Hill to speak up for their patients and their fellow doctors because only together have we been able to bring about positive change.

In the era of COVID-19, focus has been on the development and distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE). Emergency medicine physicians, hospitalists and critical care doctors (particularly those in the intensive care units) don’t have enough PPE because the national demand is exceeding the available supply.

During any time of disease management, physicians have advocated for the proper legislative action to protect their patients, and they will continue to do so. Leaders in various specialties often rally their co-workers, asking them to advocate for the national implementation of necessary policies, including stay-at-home orders or increased sanitation measures. On a more local level, advocating for—and adhering to—individual hospital and health system policies may be critical combatting crises, as Neurology Today notes. By joining these efforts, we are able to support both our colleagues in the trenches of a pandemic and the patients they continue to serve.

Staying safe, physically and mentally

As new physicians take on roles they may not have expected and experience the alarming rate of patient mortality, colleagues reminding others to focus on their mental health is another invaluable aspect of physician support in the COVID-19 era. From the inevitable anxiety that accompanies a virulent disease we are still attempting to fully understand to the uncertainty of operating in a health system that’s trying to adapt to near-daily new information, this situation takes a mental toll on every physician in addition to the normal stress that comes from managing critical patients.

As important as it is to take care of our patients, it’s also our responsibility to take care of our own health. When we do that, we will be able to keep moving forward and keep caring for our patient population during this pandemic. Focusing on our mental health will also be important during any other crisis we may encounter in the future.

Keeping calm, promoting evidence

As family and friends ask us for information during this crisis, one way to help with physician support is to promote evidence-based medicine.

Medicine has always required not only critical thinking and interpretation but the ability to convey our findings and their importance to the general population. In these times, it has never been more important that we ensure the public is guided by fact and not fiction when dealing with this pandemic. In the COVID-19 era, one way physicians have supported each other is by promoting the stay-at-home orders that have been issued in states all over the country. By eliminating in-person social gatherings and reducing nonessential travel, we can avoid overwhelming the medical system with new patients who need respiratory support.

Making sure the general population is following the right advice is essential every year, particularly during high rates of respiratory illnesses like influenza, which often spreads rapidly in schools and workplaces. Physicians promoting evidence-based medicine will always make us better-equipped to tackle any outbreak.

The impact of this novel virus continues to grow, and stress on anyone working in the medical field can be overwhelming. During this time, we must continue to stand together and support one another.

Ogie M. Ezeoke, MD
Lippincott Medicine
Lippincott is a leading international medical publisher of professional health information for practitioners, faculty, residents, students, and healthcare institutions with a full suite of essential medical products, from books and journals to digital solutions.