Some are being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. Others are leaving the profession. A tragic few ended up taking their own lives.
For many doctors, fighting on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed them past their mental and emotional breaking point. So much so, in fact, that healthcare leaders expect the virus to have a devastating impact on the field for years to come in the form of physician burnout. Already a chronic problem among doctors—more than 50% reported experiencing burnout before COVID-19 hit—the death toll, lack of resources, and anxiety over getting infected or infecting family members, among other factors caused by the virus, are exacerbating the problem.
Bryan Bohman, MD, founder of Stanford University’s WellMD Center, which focuses on taking care of doctors and those they serve, says he fully anticipates rates to increase over time. Indeed, according to a recent poll in Medical Economics, 71% of physicians report feeling burned out right now, while 65% cite the pandemic as a contributing factor to their feelings. And it isn’t over yet. “The dust hasn’t settled yet, but there is certainly more physician burnout to come,” Dr. Bohman says.
In fact, the potential for increased physician burnout from the pandemic has renewed attention among the healthcare community around wellness centers like those established by Dr. Bohman. It has also led healthcare organizations to seriously consider appointing an executive-level chief wellness officer (CWO). Stanford hired a CWO years ago, for instance, and since the COVID-19 outbreak started, other healthcare systems have hired or are interviewing candidates for the role.
The hiring wave is a long time coming. Despite being endorsed years ago by pretty much every major medical association, as it currently stands, only a small minority of healthcare organizations actually have a CWO. Of the 200 organizations in the National Academy of Medicine’s coalition to fight physician burnout, for instance, Korn Ferry data shows that only about a third of them have a CWO or similar role. Moreover, many of those are C-suite executives in title alone, lacking the resources and influence to create meaningful change at their organizations, says Deborah Wing, MD, MBA, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Academic Health Center practice.
“Most organizations are slowly coming to grips with what is supposed to be an important evolution in the administration of healthcare,” says Dr. Wing, who is also a board-certified OB-GYN and maternal-fetal medicine specialist.
Now, however, the pandemic has heightened the importance of doctor well being, giving the idea of a chief wellness officer the same momentum that chief digital officers had a decade ago when digital disruption took hold. But, not unlike chief digital officers who failed because their organizations were resistant to change, Dr. Wing says for the chief wellness officer to truly become embedded in the medical practice, healthcare organizations will have to undergo cultural transformation demonstrating a commitment to the issues.