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Heidi Erickson, MD, is tired. As a pulmonary and critical care physician at Hennepin Healthcare, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, she has been providing care for patients with COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.
Dr Heidi Erickson
It was exhausting from the beginning, as she and her colleagues scrambled to understand how to deal with this new disease. But lately, she has noticed a different kind of exhaustion arising from the knowledge that with vaccines widely available, the latest surge was preventable.
Her intensive care unit (ICU) is currently as full as it has ever been with COVID patients, many of them young adults and most of them unvaccinated. After the recent death of one patient, an unvaccinated man with teenage children, she had to face his family’s questions about why ivermectin, an antiparasitic medication that was falsely promoted as a COVID treatment, was not administered.
“I’m fatigued because I’m working more than ever, but more people don’t have to die,” Erickson told Medscape Medical News. “It’s been very hard physically, mentally, emotionally.”
Amid yet another surge in COVID-19 cases around the United States, clinicians are speaking out about their growing frustration with this preventable crisis.
Some are using the terms “empathy fatigue” and “compassion fatigue” — a sense that they are losing empathy for unvaccinated individuals who are fueling the pandemic.
Erickson says she is frustrated not by individual patients but by a system that has allowed disinformation to proliferate. Experts say these types of feelings fit into a widespread pattern of physician burnout that has taken a new turn at this stage of the pandemic.
Empathy is a cornerstone of what clinicians do, and the ability to understand and share a patient’s feelings is an essential skill for providing effective care, says Kaz Nelson, MD, a psychiatrist at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.
Dr Kaz Nelson
Practitioners face paradoxical situations all the time, she notes. These include individuals who break bones and go skydiving again, people who have high cholesterol but continue to eat fried foods, and those with advanced lung cancer who continue to smoke.
To treat patients with compassion, practitioners learn to set aside judgment by acknowledging the complexity of human behavior. They may lament the addictive nature of nicotine and advertising that targets children, for example, while still listening and caring.
Empathy requires high-level brain function, but as stress levels rise, brain function that drives empathy tends to shut down. It’s a survival mechanism, Nelson says.
Dr Mona Masood
When healthcare workers feel overwhelmed, trapped, or threatened by patients demanding unproven treatments or by ICUs with more patients than ventilators, they may experience a fight-or-flight response that makes them defensive, frustrated, angry, or uncaring, notes Mona Masood, DO, a Philadelphia-area psychiatrist and founder of Physician Support Line, a free mental health hotline for doctors.
Some clinicians have taken to Twitter and other social media platforms to post about these types of experiences.
These feelings, which have been brewing for months, have been exacerbated by the complexity of the current situation. Clinicians see a disconnect between what is and what could be, Nelson notes.
“Prior to vaccines, there weren’t other options, and so we had toxic stress and we had fatigue, but we could still maintain little bits of empathy by saying, ‘You know, people didn’t choose to get infected, and we are in a pandemic.’ We could kind of hate the virus. Now with access to vaccines, that last connection to empathy is removed for many people,” she says.
Self-preservation vs Empathy
Compassion fatigue or empathy fatigue is just one reaction to feeling completely maxed out and overstressed, Nelson says. Anger at society, such as Erickson experienced, is another response.
Practitioners may also feel as if they are just going through the motions of their job, or they might disassociate, ceasing to feel that their patients are human. Plenty of doctors and nurses have cried in their cars after shifts and have posted tearful videos on social media.
Early in the pandemic, Masood says, physicians who called the support hotline expressed sadness and grief. Now, she had her colleagues hear frustration and anger, along with guilt and shame for having feelings they believe they shouldn’t be having, especially toward patients. They may feel unprofessional or worse ― unworthy of being physicians, she says.
One recent caller to the hotline was a long-time ICU physician who had been told so many times by patients that ivermectin was the only medicine that would cure them that he began to doubt himself, says Masood. This caller needed to be reassured by another physician that he was doing the right thing.
Another emergency department physician told Masood about a young child who had arrived at the hospital with COVID symptoms. When asked whether the family had been exposed to anyone with COVID, the child’s parent lied so that they could be triaged faster.
The physician, who needed to step away from the situation, reached out to Masood to express her frustration so that she wouldn’t “let it out” on the patient.
“It’s hard to have empathy for people who, for all intents and purposes, are very self-centered,” Masood says. “We’re at a place where we’re having to choose between self-preservation and empathy.”
How to Cope
To help practitioners cope, Masood offers words that describe what they’re experiencing. She often hears clinicians say things such as, “This is a type of burnout that I feel to my bones,” or “This makes me want to quit,” or “I feel like I’m at the end of my rope.”
She encourages them to consider the terms “empathy fatigue,” and “moral injury” in order to reconcile how their sense of responsibility to take care of people is compromised by factors outside of their control.
It is not shameful to acknowledge that they experience emotions, including difficult ones such as frustration, anger, sadness, and anxiety, Masood adds.
Being frustrated with a patient doesn’t make someone a bad doctor, and admitting those emotions is the first step toward dealing with them, she says.
Nelson adds that taking breaks from work can help. She also recommends setting boundaries, seeking therapy, and acknowledging feelings early before they cause a sense of callousness or other consequences that become harder to heal from as time goes on.
“We’re trained to just go, go, go and sometimes not pause and check in,” she says. Clinicians who open up are likely to find they are not the only ones feeling tired or frustrated right now, she adds.
“Connect with peers and colleagues, because chances are, they can relate,” Nelson says.
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