Strain of COVID Care Has Many Health Professionals Looking for an Exit

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TUESDAY, April 6, 2021 — After the pandemic, the next great health care challenge in the United States could be retaining highly trained doctors, nurses and scientists, a new study warns.

Up to one in five employees at an academic medical institution are considering leaving their professions because of the strains of coping with the pandemic, according to the researchers.

“It’s sobering to learn that, during a time of economic recession, at least one-fifth of our workforce were considering leaving their jobs because of the severe levels of stress they were experiencing,” said senior study author Angela Fagerlin. She is chair of the department of population health sciences at the University of Utah’s School of Medicine, in Salt Lake City.

“Many of these are people who have spent five to 10 years of their adult lives training to do this kind of work. Yet, it’s so overwhelming and burdensome that they were potentially thinking about giving it all up,” Fagerlin said in a university news release.

Several studies have examined the effects of burnout, stress, depression and anxiety on medical staff during the global pandemic, but most have included only frontline workers or physician trainees. Few have addressed family-work balance issues, including child care needs during the pandemic, the study authors noted. This contributed significantly to staff stress and burnout.

According to study author Rebecca Delaney, a postdoctoral research fellow at the university, “We suspect these disturbing trends likely exist within other health care systems nationwide. These findings are alarming and a warning sign about the morale and well-being of doctors and nurses, as well as non-clinical health care scientists and staff.”

For the study, the researchers surveyed all 27,700 clinical and non-clinical University of Utah Health faculty, staff and trainees in August 2020. The investigators found that men and women, and those with and without children, were struggling with the impact of COVID-19, Delaney said.

About 48% of participants had at least one child aged 18 or younger, and about 49% of them reported that parenting and managing virtual education for children was causing them stress.

About 55% of faculty and 60% of trainees reported decreased productivity. And 47% of participants worried that the pandemic would affect their career development. Nearly two-thirds of trainees were highly concerned about this, the findings showed.

The researchers also found that 30% of participants were considering reducing their hours and 21% were considering leaving the workforce.

It’s possible that more employees with children aged 18 or younger responded to the survey than those without children, which would be a study limitation, the authors pointed out.

Although the researchers found that burnout, depression and anxiety were important, they concluded that greater emphasis on work-life balance, accessibility to dependent care, and ongoing psychological and social support could prevent thousands of medical caregivers from joining this potentially devastating exodus.

Fagerlin concluded that “health care systems must develop effective ways to ensure that well-trained clinicians, support staff and non-clinical scientists are supported during this unprecedented time, as well as after it. If they do that, then health systems will be more likely to retain a diverse and effective workforce.”

The findings were published online April 2 in JAMA Network Open.

More information

The Kaiser Family Foundation earlier analyzed COVID-19 risks among health care workers by race and ethnicity.

 

SOURCE: University of Utah Health, news release, April 2, 2021

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