From the Medical Director: Compassion in the time of COVID-19
By: Raymond C. Truex Jr., MD, FAANS, FACS
I have been pretty lucky so far. But that is not by accident. For the most part, I stay at home, and when I go out, I wear a mask and wash my hands frequently. I try to maintain social distancing. Fortunately, the Foundation has made it possible for me to work from home using Zoom conferencing software. Although somewhere deep in my mind I still see myself as a vital 35-year-old, the reality is that I am older, and should I become infected, the virus probably would not treat me well.
Not everyone has been as lucky as I. Hospital systems have been stressed financially by the COVID-19 pandemic, and in my own locality, the hospital system has been forced to lay off health care workers. My own practice experienced the recent furlough of our practice manager and a doctorate-level nurse practitioner. A new, young physician neighbor of mine recently lost his job a month after moving into his new home.
But more pressing than the financial hardships health care workers have to face is the existential threat of the virus itself. Across the nation, between 6001 and 9002 health care workers have succumbed to the virus, including 21 physicians.2 In Pennsylvania, there are six known deaths of health care workers.3 Add to this the threat of caring for very sick patients with limited protective equipment, exposure of family members, sick colleagues and overwhelmed hospital facilities, then you have a very reasonable cause to worry.
Those working in the addiction field see the results of this stress, particularly in physicians who already have underlying mental health or addiction problems. Nationally, drug overdoses increased by 16.6 percent in the first six months of 2020, compared to the same time frame in 2019 (18.6 percent non-fatal, vs 11.4 percent fatal).4 Our own Pennsylvania Physicians’ Health Program (PHP) physician statistics demonstrate a doubling of the drug and alcohol relapse rate among our participants over the second quarter of 2020.5 Although I could find no confirmatory statistics to prove it, psychiatrists are expecting a new wave of suicide attempts.6
The staff at the PHP is acutely aware of these issues. My associate, Dr. Edwin Kim, is continuously updating our compiled resources for physicians experiencing stress and burnout in this pandemic. This can be found at www.foundationpamedsoc.org/physicians-health-program/physician-burnout-resources. Our case managers are trained and experienced with suicide screening, and beyond that, are compassionate individuals who spend many hours counseling physicians who need to vent. If it becomes apparent that a physician requires more expert therapy by a mental health professional, the PHP maintains a list of qualified psychologists and psychiatrists to whom we can offer a referral.
Depression, anxiety and substance use disorders are medical diseases. Suffering from these diseases is not a moral failing or sign of weakness. They are effectively treated through evaluation and treatment supervised by the Pennsylvania PHP, but these therapies only work if they are utilized. If you know a physician, dentist, student or physician assistant who is burdened by the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, and is willing to get help, we are only a phone call away.
1 Centers for Disease Control
2 The Guardian and Kaiser Health News, Lost on the Frontline Database, August 2020
3 The Guardian and Kaiser Health News, Lost on the Frontline Database, August 2020
4 Office of National Drug Control Policy, Overdose Data Mapping Application Program
5 PA PHP Internal Statistics
6 Suicide Mortality and COVID 19 Disease, A Perfect Storm, JAMA Psychiatry April 2020, (Reger, Stanley, and Joiner)