COVID-19 Created ‘Perfect Storm for Emotional and Behavioral Responses’ for Health Care Professionals, Impacting Mental Health

March 25, 2021

Caroline Carney, MD, MSc, FAPM, CPHQ, CMO of Magellan Health, discusses how pharmacists and other medical professionals can boost their brain health and keep a positive mindset while working during the pandemic.

Pharmacy Times® interviewed Caroline Carney, MD, MSc, FAPM, CPHQ, CMO of Magellan Health, on how pharmacists and other medical professionals can boost their brain health and keep a positive mindset while working with patients during the pandemic.

Alana Hippensteele: What are some ways for medical professionals to boost their brain health and keep a positive mindset while working with patients?

Caroline Carney: So that's a great question because medical professionals who have been on the frontlines of COVID-19 have been among the group of individuals most highly affected by COVID-19 itself. So, whether they have become infected, especially early on in the disease state before we knew the importance of how much PPE, [or] protective equipment, needed to be used, complicated by incredibly hard work hours and by the type of grief that has rarely been seen before.

Health care professionals are no strangers to death and dying; it's something that we encounter and we see throughout the courses of our careers. But in the case of COVID-19, there was a great deal of death and dying happening where loved ones were not together, where people could not say goodbye, where closure was never brought because of the need to keep individuals safe from potentially being infected.

So, we have concerns about these frontline professionals because all of those things coming together create the perfect storm for emotional and behavioral responses to occur, particularly along the lines of burnout, depression, and anxiety. We know for a fact that among the general population in the United States, conditions like depression, anxiety, and substance use are on the rise, so we can only imagine that those have occurred in health care professionals. In fact, research shows that the levels of burnout and depression have become higher in health care professionals.

I want to really stress that these individuals are incredibly overburdened, if you will, with long work hours, and initially dealing with a condition that almost seemed like there was no hope. At the beginning, when there weren't treatments and there weren't vaccines, the amount of death, dying, [and] despair was overwhelming, and those kinds of factors really can lead to burnout among health care providers.

So, taking all of that into consideration, I think there are some important things that health care professionals can do to help protect themselves. The first is taking care of themselves, first and foremost, in terms of getting sleep, in terms of avoiding use of substances, particularly alcohol, in terms of getting exercise and physical movement to step away from that health care environment and be in a better place.

Particularly important is the socialization that those health care professionals need to have away from the hospital setting, away from the clinic setting, and with settings that bring them joy, a sense of relaxation, a sense of relief—all really critical.

Then finally the connection with other health care professionals, the ability to talk about it, the ability to talk about the trauma they have experienced and the fears that they are experiencing. I know colleagues who are afraid to come home from the hospital and come into their own homes because of fear that they will infect their own loved ones, so you can imagine the kind of burden that many individuals carry. That ability to really talk to someone in a therapeutic and non-therapeutic setting is critical.

One more thought—Magellan opened up a crisis line for health care providers, and the average length of time that we have from phone calls of health care providers calling in to the crisis line just to talk, to reach out has been over 20 minutes. So, you can imagine the importance of having an understanding person on the other end of the line.