“In crisis” is the terminology being used by many to describe the state of the US healthcare system. As the covid pandemic sends wave after wave of patients into hospitals looking for care, more often than not they are met by stressed out systems and burned out workers. A solution is being called for, but a fix may not come until the underlying cause for the crisis is fully understood.
Stress caused by virus variants
A wise man once said, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” In essence, each appearance of a new variant defers hope that the pandemic is being overcome, bringing heartsickness to healthcare workers who must care for patients everyday.
As 2020 came to a close, many in the healthcare industry thought that they had seen the worst of the covid pandemic. However, the news of the delta variant appearing in India and spreading across Europe put an end to any hopes that covid was passing into history.
As the delta variant landed in the US, many of the social distancing and stay-in-place protocols had already been relaxed. Also, vaccinations were much more common than in earlier phases of the pandemic, meaning many people were less careful in their interactions because they felt they had already achieved an immunity to covid. These factors created an environment in which delta could spread rapidly, even among those who had been vaccinated.
Not only did delta reenergize infection rates across the US, but those affected by the virus were more likely to require hospitalizations than those affected by the alpha variant. For the healthcare industry, delta brought a whole new wave of demands to a system that was already running dangerously low on physical, emotional, and material resources.
Stress caused by opposition to vaccines
As covid vaccines became available, it appeared that the healthcare system would finally get a break. Unfortunately, that has not been the case.
While many were quick to embrace vaccination, many were also quick to resist. As a result, healthcare workers regularly find themselves the target of criticism for carrying out the protocols that their organizations implement. To add to the stress, that criticism often comes from the patients they are trying to help.
As patients bring not only the virus but also the vaccine debate into hospitals, healthcare workers are finding themselves running low on a virtue for which they have historically been known: compassion. Some are calling it “compassion fatigue” and noting that it makes it challenging for healthcare workers to do the job that is expected of them.
Stress caused by the Great Resignation
As covid has added to demand on the US healthcare system, a trend that has come to be known as the Great Resignation has subtracted from the number of people who are available to meet those demands.
The term “Great Resignation” was coined in May 2021 to describe an unprecedented 3.8 million resignations among US workers the month before. Since then, an average of 3.9 million workers have left their jobs each month.
In the healthcare industry, experts report that 20 percent of healthcare workers have left their jobs as part of the Great Resignation, leaving those who remain in a situation where doing their job efficiently and safely is extremely challenging. While covid is clearly playing a factor in departures by healthcare workers, those same experts cite pre-existing conditions within the healthcare system that covid forced into the open, including stress brought on by an aging population, an increase in chronic conditions, and changes in regulations.
Overall, the challenging conditions have created an environment where doctors and other healthcare professionals are retiring early to escape the stress and the next generation seems reluctant to take up the baton.
Stress caused by a lack of balance
For doctors and other medical professionals, establishing a healthy work-life balance has long been a challenge. Long shifts and high stress was the norm before covid. The effects of the pandemic have only made it more difficult to strike a balance that avoids burnout.
As a result, developing systems that provide flexibility for and build resilience in healthcare workers might be the best fix for healthcare in the age of covid. The challenges that the healthcare system faces are complex and ambiguous. Developing solutions will require confidence and commitment. Implementing solutions will require hope and trust. If healthcare companies cannot provide environments in which those qualities can thrive, health will continue to be elusive.
Graig Robinson is the CEO of the Diagnostic Service Center, a medical testing provider committed to combining medical leadership, ground-breaking technology, and the best scientists to create better outcomes for doctors and patients alike.
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