The COVID-19 pandemic is generating a huge toll on the physical and emotional health of the general population. In the case of health professionals, daily stress at the front line of care, lack of means, the difficult decisions taken daily, fear of self-infection and for family members, etc. make them an especially vulnerable group. In fact, before the pandemic, several studies had already shown that health professionals generally have a worse perception of their own mental health than the general population.
Now, at the height of the pandemic, preliminary data from the study on the Impact of COVID-19 on the health of health professionals—carried out by the Galatea Foundation, the CoMB and Professors Núria Mas (IESE) and Judit Vall (Instituto de Economía de Barcelona IEB-UB)—find that the current health crisis has not only significantly worsened the physical and mental health of health professionals, but the impact has been so great that the collective is currently feeling more tired and less prepared to cope with a “second wave” of the pandemic. Up to 42% of professionals, who have a more pessimistic outlook for the coming months, say this.
Preliminary data from this study are based on a survey of 1,648 doctors in Catalonia between the months of July and August. The study will be expanded later, with the collaboration of the Organization Médica Colegiales (OMC) and Mutual Médica, with data from other health professionals in Catalonia and from doctors from the rest of the state.
The burnout shown by doctors is also evident from the 24% who say that at some point, over the last few months, they have questioned whether they would choose to continue to practice the profession (22% have raised it, while 2% consider this option more seriously). However, the bulk of the collective maintains a firm commitment to the profession and to patients, despite the tough periods experienced since the outbreak of the pandemic.
The survey illustrates the worsening physical and mental health of doctors from several indicators: frequency with which they experience physical and emotional exhaustion, headaches, stomach pain or back pain; as well as ability to cope with problems, among others. The values of these indicators are compared at three different times: before the pandemic, during the outbreak of the first wave (March and April), and during the summer months. The worst values were obtained in the March-April period, while in summer, despite experiencing an improvement, the pre-pandemic level has not been recovered.
The study finds that certain groups show worse health indicators, such as for doctors working in primary care, those working in ICU and emergency services, and those who decided to self-isolate themselves during the hardest months of the pandemic to protect their families. These groups also show a slower recovery than other colleagues.
Among primary care professionals (25.7% of the sample), the concept of leaving the profession has been more frequent: 31.7% have considered it at some point, well above the 21.3% indicated by colleagues working at hospitals and the 22.2% in other areas. They also indicate that they feel less prepared to cope with what remains of the pandemic: 48.4% of primary doctors and doctors say so, while the same feeling is reported by 44.5% of hospital professionals and 34.8% in other areas.
As for doctors and doctors working in the ICU and emergency services, up to 68% said, for example, that at the peak of the pandemic (March-April) they were feeling tired all the time or very often (above 57.6 % of the total sample), a percentage that was 27.7 % before the crisis (18.9 % in the total sample) and still remained at 47.4 % in July-August (42 % in the total sample).
The Team Acts as a Protective Factor
One of the most positive aspects of this study is the role of the team serving as a protective element for the health and well-being of physicians. Professionals working in teams where goals are shared and where there is a “feeling of belonging” report better physical and emotional health indicators than others. These professionals face fewer ethical conflicts and less stress in their daily activities as decisions and problems are shared. According to the survey, up to 31.2% of professionals who do not have the support of a “protective team” say they are often confronted by ethical conflicts, a percentage that drops to 24.5% among professionals who feel integrated and supported by a team. These preliminary data point out that group interventions aimed at healthcare teams, such as those being carried out by the Galatea Foundation, can be very beneficial, both to remedy problematic situations and to improve the welfare of professionals, as forms of preventive interventions.
Preliminary results of the study Impact of COVID-19 on the health of health professionals allow general recommendations to be formulated aimed at improving health of health professionals, reducing risk factors and promoting preventive undertakings. The team that conducted the study emphasises that ensuring the physical and mental health of health professionals and, ultimately, “caring for those who care for us” is a key element in likewise ensuring good care for citizens.
These are the main recommendations:
- The current health system needs to be reformed to ensure the protection of the health of healthcare providers and to minimize risk factors inherent in the system itself. It would be desirable to move towards having adequate human and economic resources, more autonomy for professionals and for teams, training for stress management and complex decision-making, etc.
- The health of health professionals should be a priority for health authorities, who must provide adequate care, both at the level of care and prevention, and promotion of health.
- The training of the professionals should promote for prevention (management of the emotions, of the difficulties, etc.)
- It is essential to promote and support teams and ensure their healthy functioning, as they are one of the main safeguarding elements that the system itself can offer.