One of my greatest sources of inspiration and hope during the pandemic has been the courage and dedication of health workers. Their fierce commitment to care for us, despite the dangers to themselves and their loved ones, deserves our lasting appreciation and support.
Which is why it is so troubling that, these days, when I visit a hospital, clinic or health department and ask staff how they’re doing, they use words like exhausted, traumatized, helpless and heartbroken.
Day after day spent stretched too thin, fighting against ever-increasing administrative requirements, managing without the resources to provide patients and communities with the care they need, and contending with an astonishing frequency of physical and verbal assaults at work – including horrific attacks like the one we saw at St. Francis medical campus in Tulsa, Oklahoma, this month – has driven many nurses, doctors, community health workers and public health staff to the brink.
Traumatized before COVID and especially by it
Even before the pandemic, more than half of nurses and physicians, including trainees, reported feeling burned out .
Health insurer delayed her MRI. Meanwhile, the cancer that would kill her was growing.
Then came COVID-19. During the pandemic, each shift and overtime hour for a health worker often meant putting their own health, and their family’s health, at risk in order to heal, comfort and protect others. Fear, loneliness and uncertainty were pervasive. The threat of targeted harassment and violence underscored many interactions. Some health workers were forced to wall themselves off from their loved ones. And too many served as the final comfort for patients walled off from theirs.
COVID-19 has been a fully and uniquely traumatic experience for the health workforce and for their families. Burnout has reached crisis proportions among front-line clinical staff in hospitals and clinics. More than 50% of public health workers have reported symptoms of at least one mental health condition, like anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal ideation.
Our son was fighting for his life. A gay blood donor ban blocked us from giving help he needed.
Health workers – doctors and nurses, social workers and technicians, medical assistants and public health workers, pharmacists and hospital custodians alike – are struggling to a degree I haven’t seen in my lifetime. They tell me, in quiet, resigned voices, that they don’t see how the health workforce can continue like this.
“Something has to change,” I hear them say, over and over again.
They’re right. And the stakes are enormous. Already, nearly 1 in 4 physicians and about 2 in 5 nurses say they intend to leave their practice altogether. This will affect the public’s ability to get routine preventive care, emergency care and medical procedures. It will make it harder for our nation to ensure we are ready for the next public health emergency. Health disparities will worsen in a world where care is more scarce. And costs will continue to rise.
That’s why I issued a Surgeon General’s Advisory on addressing health worker burnout – to call our nation to attention and action to address this crisis.
Make welfare of health workers a priority
In order to continue serving to the best of their abilities, health workers need real support and systemic change from health systems, private and public insurers, educational institutions and other leaders. The advisory lays out a road map for how we make these changes a reality – from improving access to health insurance, mental health care and sick leave to ensuring adequate staffing and reducing administrative burdens so health workers have more time to serve their patients, co-workers, communities and families.
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This is about more than health. It’s about our moral obligation to take care of those who have taken care of us. At a time when the health workforce has been hit hard, we can commit to making this moment one where health workers recognize that their service and suffering have not gone unnoticed; that we do not take their dedication for granted; and that their health, safety and well-being are as much a priority as the well-being of the people in their care.
It won’t be easy. Many of the recommendations in the advisory will take time, and they will require our continued attention and action. But millions of health workers are counting on us to make the policy and institutional changes necessary to address the burnout crisis devastating their colleagues – and to do so with the urgency this moment demands.
Health workers have had our backs during our darkest, most difficult moments. It’s time for us to have theirs.
Dr. Vivek H. Murthy serves as the 21st surgeon general of the United States.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: ‘Something has to change’: Health care workers who cared for us during COVID are burning out
This Health Worker Burnout Report from the Surgeon General’s Advisory (takes a minute to load)