An Unrelenting Pandemic
Clinicians and healthcare leaders have been through a lot in the past 21 months.
In the uncertainty of the early pandemic, a lot of clinicians were afraid. Mixed in with that fear, there was a sense of moral and ethical obligation to remain in the trenches. When faced with PPE shortages, healthcare workers in New York City re-used N95’s and covered themselves in garbage bags for protection. Many clinicians lived separately from their families for months to protect their loved ones in the event that they became ill themselves. Some, in this process of facing the overwhelming death and illness, took their lives, such as the well-documented case of Dr. Lorna Breen.
Burnout was due to long hours, exhausting work, and overwhelmed hospital systems in the midst of a VUCA environment - characterized by Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. Clinicians did their best to hang on for another day, another week, another month, with the hope that with the arrival of vaccines and effective treatment, the risks would lessen and normalcy would return.
That hope has dissipated. Over a year and a half later, things are better but not nearly as much as we’d anticipated. Clinicians in many places throughout the United States are still facing overfull ICUs, concerns about rationing direly needed machines and medication, and now even tighter issues around staffing as many have left the bedside for outpatient or other positions that are less intense.
Moving from Fear to Anger
Those that remain have moved from fear to anger. And it’s not hard to see why: vaccines have been available now for months and yet only 70% of the US population have received at least one dose of one of the vaccines and only 60% have been fully vaccinated (MayoClinic Vaccine Tracker). This is well below the goal of 80% that would contribute to meaningful herd immunity. And we now know that waning immunity means a third “booster” shot is needed for full immunity.
Overwhelmingly, the population that remains unvaccinated are the ones who end up hospitalized in the ICUs and dying, as we see indications of an oncoming fifth wave of the delta variant and a potential new threat in the omicron variant that is likely to be far more contagious.
At this point, overworked clinicians primarily are caring for patients whose sickness and death could have largely been prevented had they listened to their physicians rather than conservative news commentators claiming Covid is a hoax. And still dying patients insist, to the clinicians trying to save their lives, that the entire situation is fabricated and they are part of the lie. It is no wonder, then, that there is anger.
Steven Reames, executive director for the Ada County Medical Society in Boise, Idaho wrote a piece recently about how important it is to acknowledge and deal with the anger that many of us, especially frontline clinicians, are experiencing. I recommend reading his article if this feels like what you are experiencing.
The Leader's Unique Role
Health system leaders have a unique responsibility in these times of uncertainty. Leadership matters most when people, clinicians in the hospital and the general public, are dealing with anxiety about the future and anger at each other. You don’t have to have all the answers. But you do have to acknowledge the questions, gather and share information with your staff and the public, and, most importantly of all, take care of your people like you never have before.
Clinicians need to know that their leaders care about them and are there for them. It will make the difference in your people being able to hang in there another week, another month, another year, until the pandemic finally settles to a sustainable level.
To show you care about your people, you have to be with them. You can’t do it over Zoom. Meeting your clinicians in their clinical workplaces shows you respect and value them. You’ll learn something new, that you otherwise wouldn’t have, that will make a difference for your clinicians, for your system, and for yourself.
Not sure how to go about it properly? Contact me by email and I’ll be happy to help.