Health workers are burned

I can wholeheartedly raise my hand and say “I am” to that title. I recently wrote about this – sharing my experience working in public health during this time. Not only is public health struggling with this 3-year-old COVID-19 pandemic, but so are healthcare workers. Indeed, anyone who works healthily during this time has experienced profound feelings of exhaustion, trauma, grief, fear, and frustration. My background in infection prevention means I have one foot in public health and one foot in healthcare, both of which have weighed heavily.

We are increasingly discussing the long COVID, but it seems that the days of support for our healthcare workers – like the banging of pots and pans in New York – are dramatically over. The United States and much of the world is done with COVID. Over the inconvenience of the pandemic, which required us to promote public health and take measures such as masking and employment restrictions. Perhaps one of the most difficult parts of this pandemic for healthcare workers is the ongoing onslaught of the disease. The waves of critically ill patients, loss of friends and family, risk to your own safety and no time to simply recover.

Not a moment to heal before the next wave comes. However, with each wave, the interest in responding to the pandemic decreases. Slower vaccination rates and loosening of CDC guidelines to combat the realities of our declining interest in responding to the marathon that is a pandemic.

Chief surgeon and physician Vivek Murthy, MD, recently wrote about this within the New England Journal of Medicine. During his second term as surgeon general, Murty faced a pandemic mismanaged by the previous administration, growing frustration, declining vaccination rates for vaccine-preventable diseases, mass shootings, monkeypox outbreaks and more. Perhaps one of the most pragmatic and empathetic voices of the US government’s healthcare response, Dr. Murthy continues to hold the spotlight on health care worker burnout and well-being.

In his perspective article, Dr. Murthy points to problems that existed long before COVID but have been exacerbated by the strain of a three-year pandemic. “These systemic flaws have pushed millions of healthcare workers to the brink.” About 52% of nurses (according to the American Nurses Foundation) and 20% of physicians (Mayo Clinic Proceedings) say they plan to leave their clinical practice. A shortage of more than 1 million nurses is projected by the end of the year (US Bureau of Labor Statistics); a shortage of 3 million low-wage healthcare workers is expected over the next 3 years (Mercer). And we face a significant shortage of public health workers just as we need to strengthen our defenses against future public health threats. Healthcare worker burnout is a serious threat to the health and economic security of the nation,” Murthy wrote.

Earlier this year, he issued a Surgeon General’s Recommendation on health worker burnout and well-being, drawing attention to this growing problem by declaring it a crisis that requires national priority. Citing several actions, he implores us to take this crisis seriously and waste no time in responding. Murthy calls for the work needed to reduce burnout and improve well-being, such as reducing the administrative burden between healthcare workers and their patients, building a culture that supports well-being, strengthening public investment in the workforce and public health, and increasing access to care for the mental health of health workers.

Acknowledging the herculean effort this work will take, he nevertheless stresses the urgency and importance of it, pointing to the years of inaction that have brought us to this point, but now is a pivotal moment when we can actually drive change and improve health and the well-being of our healthcare workers.

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