This piece was originally supposed to be for National Women Physicians’ Day… which was over two months ago now on February 3rd. (Can you tell that healthcare workers are low on energy? This includes me, your friendly local hospital chaplain.) That means that the folks I interviewed were all female physicians (their direct words are quoted in this piece), but of course, sometimes the personal can be more universal than we know. They represent women of different ages/level in the field, countries of origin, and first language. This piece also aims to represent what friends and colleagues of different genders and professions within healthcare have shared with me over the past two years. (This also includes some of my favorite healthcare-worker-led Instagram accounts such as nurse @shesinscrubs, @wokedoctors, and @thehospitalchaplain.)

First, I’ll share the struggles of healthcare workers, especially the female physicians who were generous with their stories; then I’ll share how they said we can help.

Many healthcare workers have dealt with deep moral distress over the last two years.

  • We feared getting our families sick before vaccines came out. Some of us still fear getting our families sick after receiving the vaccines.
  • We have needed to provide emotional care in ways and to an extent that we never have before, including for patients’ family members, none of whom could visit at one point – and much of the emotional labor fell on women (and, of course, this labor does not necessarily lead to a pay raise in a field that still has strong gender inequity in pay).
  • We have seen death at work over and over again and then walked out the doors into a world where pandemic fatigue and “getting back to normal” hit us in the face. “It has been exceptionally disheartening over the course of the pandemic to see that so many people care more about their personal comfort and preferences than about the lives of others – particularly vulnerable children. When I work for 24 straight hours in the ICU every 4 days without sleeping, and often without eating or even drinking water, sometimes not even using the bathroom at all, and then hear people complain that wearing a mask in the grocery store is too much of a sacrifice for them, it’s pretty discouraging.”
  • Only half (51%) of clinicians agreed the amount of time they are able to spend with patients is sufficient to give them good care.
  • There are terrible decisions that need to be made over and over again far more often than before the pandemic, including who gets dialysis and other life-saving treatments at underfunded and overcrowded hospitals.
  • The odds of patient death increases by 7% for each additional patient the nurse must take on at one time, and my nurse colleagues say that they’ve had to take on up to ten patients, even though a safe ratio in a general med-surg unit is one nurse per four patients.
  • People who aren’t cisgender, heterosexual, native-English-speaking white men don’t have their opinions taken as seriously. “I’m often second guessed or treated differently and it really sucks to be in an institution of medicine that was not designed for me. It was clearly designed for male physicians who had a wife at home handling all their non-professional affairs. Many don’t realize how difficult it can be for women, especially women who have other marginalized identities that intersect with gender.”
  • There’s just straight-up burnout. A 2020 Medscape National Physician Burnout and Suicide Report reported a burnout rate of about 43%. And healthcare worker suicide, especially physician suicide, has gone up. “We are tired, we are frustrated, we are working harder than ever with little to show for it. We feel abandoned as many people have decided that they are done with the pandemic while we are still drowning and seeing horrors on a daily basis.”

 

So how can non-healthcare workers help?

  • Get vaccinated. “Get vaccinated against COVID and get everyone they know to do the same. Help dispel myths and promote accurate information. The COVID vaccines are very safe and effective at preventing hospitalization and severe disease. It’s true that especially with the newer variants people may still get COVID if they are vaccinated, but the severity of their illness [and adults’ chances of getting long COVID] will be much less because of the vaccines. Both severe COVID and Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C) are preventable if children are vaccinated. This is by far the most helpful thing anyone can do.”
  • Mask up with a high-quality mask like a surgical mask, KN95, or N95.
  • Continue to model public health-conscious behaviors even when no one else is joining you, and encourage your loved ones to do the same.
  • “One of the most important things you can do is show us, and tell us, that you care and are appreciative of what we do.” This is especially important if you are a patient or a family member of a patient. The reality is you probably will need to wait longer in an emergency room or for a call bell to be answered than you ever have before. The people taking care of you are human and they are bone tired. Have patience.
  • Provide (or give money for) childcare, meals, and home cleaning. “Even women with these stressful, professional positions are still expected to be the main caretaker or homemaker in the home after work (yay! Patriarchy!) while getting paid less and having better patient care outcomes.”
  • Never downplay how bad COVID is, including in “young and healthy people” and especially children, who are some of the most vulnerable.
  • Listen to the medical advice of women and other marginalized populations as intently as you would listen to men’s.
  • Look for the helpers and follow their lead.

 

Thank you for coming to this TED Talk. With love, your friendly local hospital chaplain

Emmie Arnold

Emmie Arnold (she/her/hers) is a hospital chaplain in New York; a Reverend in the PC(USA); avid cook; traveler (on hiatus); friend and family member to many; writer; and musician.

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