• COVID-19—the Pandemic’s Impact on Physician Well-Being and Mental Health


    Sunday’s Opening Session (OS03V) concluded with a special segment in which Academy CEO David W. Parke II, MD, discussed physician well-being with Saul Levin, MD, MPH, the CEO and medical director of the American Psychiatric Association. Here are some highlights of their conversation.

    Advice for physicians in these stressful times. “Physicians are stressed from Day One, from the first day of residency,” Dr. Levin said. “We’ve learned to cope.” However, the pandemic has raised the ante when it comes to the impact of stress on physician well-being: As Dr. Levin said, “There’s no escape” from COVID-19.

    During this time, it’s critical to “maintain those social and professional connections [and to] talk about those feelings of stress,” Dr. Levin said. In his own life, he cited the example of virtual “social hours” with colleagues: “I often think, ‘Oh, do I really want to do this?’ but then I leave feeling a lot more uplifted, [knowing] that I’m not alone . . . it really makes a difference.” He suggested thinking of these virtual get-togethers as a way of “keeping together with your colleagues.”

    Red flags to watch for. Prolonged stress can lead to burnout, Dr. Levin said. And as there is a significant overlap between burnout and depression, “both must be taken very seriously and be addressed.”

    He cited several warning signs of burnout and depression, from the feeling when you get home of “Oh, I just want to be left alone,” to a growing awareness that “I’m just not myself,” to changes in appetite. “Those are early warning signs, and you must open up communication” with loved ones, friends, and colleagues. As physicians, Dr. Levin reminded the audience, “We’re taught to be stoic, to not talk about ourselves. But this is the time to open our hearts and minds [to others].”

    How to help those in trouble. How can you help someone who is struggling? If the person says, “I’m not sure if I can continue’” or “I can’t go on like this,” be aware that “this is a very strong signal to you” that he or she is in trouble, Dr. Levin said. “You cannot get off that phone . . . ask, ‘Is there someone you can talk to? Have you ever seen a counselor?’”

    He added, “I know it’s hard, because they will suddenly pull back and say, ‘It’s not that bad; I’ll be okay.’” Despite their deflection, you must persist, he said. “You have to be really clear that they are making a contract with you; that they will call someone after you hang up—and that you will check with them the next day.”

    As he noted, “We’re not used to seeing a colleague become a patient . . . but the person who confided in you was crying out for help.” You may need to alert the person’s spouse or call the police to ask for a welfare check. And doing so will take “great courage,” he said.

    Key resources. For more information, go to www.psychiatry.org/psychiatrists/practice/well-being-and-burnout and aao.org/membership/physician-wellness, where resources include the Physician Well-Being Index. If you’d like to work with a counselor but don’t have someone in mind, Dr. Levin said, “this is the time to reach out to your primary care physician and say, ‘I’m a little in trouble.’ They’ll know who to refer you to.” In addition, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 800-273-8255. —Jean Shaw

    (Sunday’s Opening Session also featured Academy President-elect Tamara R. Fountain, MD, sharing her assessment of 2020.)

    Watch the event in full. If you are registered for AAO 2020 Virtual, you have access to the archived presentations on the virtual meeting platform until Feb. 15, 2021. Log in to the virtual meeting platform: Next, from the Lobby screen, select “Sessions” from the top navigation; click “Agenda” from the drop-down menu; click the “Sunday” tab and then scroll down to “OS03V: Opening Session."

    Financial disclosures. Dr. Levin: None. 

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