Across the country, COVID-19 has taken a toll, both physical and mental, on health professionals, and it’s not just limited to doctors and nurses who work in hospitals. Even in private doctor’s offices, dental offices, and other facilities, health workers face risks to both their mental and physical health.
Now, the situation is raising questions about whether the pandemic could be the impetus for some people to flee the profession because of the excessive physical and mental tension.
“There are dental hygienists who are quitting their jobs because of concerns about the blood and saliva that can be sprayed about during procedures,” says Dr. Cathy Hung (www.drcathyhung.com), an oral surgeon and author of “Pulling Wisdom: Filling Gaps of Cross-Cultural Communication for Healthcare Providers.”
Many health professionals also may be feeling a financial strain, Hung says. Like retail businesses and restaurants, dentists, oral surgeons, and many other medical specialists closed their offices temporarily or limited the hours because of the pandemic.
Concerns about a health worker exodus aren’t limited to the United States. One report in the United Kingdom said 20% of health professionals say COVID-19 has made them more likely to leave the profession.
Hung says just doing the daily job is far different and more difficult than a few short months ago. For added protection she doubles up on masks, with an N95 mask and a second mask layered one over the other. But that has its own drawbacks, lowering her comfort level and leading to headaches and dizziness, she says. Hung says the doubled-up mask led to a drop in her oxygen level, and she had to administer herself oxygen.
“The new normal is uncomfortable, so how can health professionals provide the same quality of care if they are uncomfortable while they are doing it?” she asks.
Answers may be difficult to come by, but Hung and others have suggestions.
Healthcare workers must not neglect themselves. This one isn’t easy to make a priority for people who devote their lives to the care of others. “We’re supposed to be the strong ones,” Hung says. But the American Medical Association reminds frontline health professionals that they are just as vulnerable to the negative mental health effects of the pandemic as anyone. “Attending to your mental health and psychosocial well-being while caring for patients is as important as managing your physical health,” the AMA tells health workers.
Those on the front lines should be open about their concerns. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends healthcare personnel communicate with their coworkers, supervisors, and employees about job stress. “Talk openly about how the pandemic is affecting your work,” the CDC suggests. “Identify factors that cause stress and work together to identify solutions.”
The public can help by wearing masks. The CDC recommends the general public wear masks when out and about, and Hung concurs. “Wearing any mask, including cloth masks, is still the best way to protect yourself and others,” she says. Use of masks can help slow the spread of COVID-19, the CDC says, which in turn will ease some of the burden on those overwhelmed health workers.
“We as healthcare providers put our health at risk to treat the public,” Hung says. “It’s important to share responsibilities so that everyone can be protected.”