MONROE TOWNSHIP, N.J. – Across the country, COVID-19 has taken a toll, both physical and mental, on health professionals, and it’s not just limited to doctors and nurses who work in hospitals. Even in private doctor’s offices, dental offices and other facilities, health workers face risks to both their mental and physical health.
Now the situation is raising questions about whether the pandemic could be the impetus for some people to flee the profession because of the excessive physical and mental tension.
“There are dental hygienists who are quitting their jobs because of concerns about the blood and saliva that can be sprayed about during procedures,” Dr. Cathy Hung, an oral surgeon and author of “Pulling Wisdom: Filling Gaps of Cross-Cultural Communication for Healthcare Providers,” said.
Many health professionals also may be feeling a financial strain, Hung said. Like retail businesses and restaurants, dentists, oral surgeons and many other medical specialists closed their offices temporarily or limited the hours because of the pandemic.
Concerns about a health worker exodus aren’t limited to the United States. One report in the United Kingdom said 20% of health professionals said COVID-19 has made them more likely to leave the profession.
Hung said just doing the daily job is far different and more difficult than a few short months ago. For added protection she doubles up on masks, with an N95 mask and a second mask layered one over the other. But that has its own drawbacks, lowering her comfort level and leading to headaches and dizziness, she said. Hung said the doubled-up mask led to a drop in her oxygen level, and she had to administer herself oxygen.
“The new normal is uncomfortable, so how can health professionals provide the same quality of care if they are uncomfortable while they are doing it?” she asked.
Answers may be difficult to come by, but Hung and others offered suggestions.
Health care workers must not neglect themselves, which isn’t easy for people who devote their lives to the care of others, she said.
“We’re supposed to be the strong ones,” Hung said.
But the American Medical Association reminded front-line health professionals that they are just as vulnerable to the negative mental health effects of the pandemic as anyone.
“Attending to your mental health and psychosocial well-being while caring for patients is as important as managing your physical health,” according to the AMA
Those on the front lines should be open about their concerns.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended health care personnel communicate with their co-workers, supervisors and employees about job stress.
“Talk openly about how the pandemic is affecting your work,” according to the CDC. “Identify factors that cause stress and work together to identify solutions.”
The public can help by wearing masks.
The CDC recommended the general public wear masks when out and about, and Hung agreed.
“Wearing any mask, including cloth masks, is still the best way to protect yourself and others,” she said.
Use of masks can help slow the spread of COVID-19, the CDC said, which in turn will ease some of the burden on those overwhelmed health workers.
“We as health care providers put our health at risk to treat the public,” Hung said. “It’s important to share responsibilities so that everyone can be protected.”
Dr. Cathy Hung, author of “Pulling Wisdom: Filling Gaps of Cross-Cultural Communication for Healthcare Providers,” is a board-certified oral and maxillofacial surgeon with more than 15 years of clinical experience. She owns and operates Prospect Oral Surgery Center in Monroe Township, New Jersey, a culturally diverse geographic area with a large number of first-generation immigrants from all over the world. Hung is a native of Taipei, Taiwan. She briefly lived in Singapore for two years before coming to the United States on a student visa in 1991 at age 18. She earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in music from the University of California Berkeley and a doctor of dental surgery from Columbia University. Hung is part of the American Dental Association’s Institute for Diversity in Leadership Program. For more information, visit http://www.drcathyhung.com.