Writing in USA Today, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy explains how he released a recent advisory on health care worker burnout to "call our nation to attention and action to address this crisis."
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'Burnout has reached crisis proportions'
"One of my greatest sources of inspiration and hope during the pandemic has been the courage and dedication of health workers," Murthy writes, " … [w]hich is why it is so troubling that, these days, when I visit a hospital, clinic or health department and ask staff how they're doing, they use words like exhausted, traumatized, helpless and heartbroken."
Even before the pandemic, burnout among nurses and physicians had been a significant problem, with more than half of each group reporting feelings of burnout. Since then, the problem has only gotten worse, with many workers "putting their own health, and their family's health, at risk in order to heal, comfort and protect others" during the pandemic, Murthy writes.
Now, "[b]urnout has reached crisis proportions among front-line clinical staff in hospitals and clinics," he writes. "… Health workers – doctors and nurses, social workers and technicians, medical assistants and public health workers, pharmacists and hospital custodians alike – are struggling to a degree I haven't seen in my lifetime."
Since the pandemic began, more than 50% of public health workers have reported symptoms of at least one mental health condition, including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicidal ideation. In addition, a growing number of health care workers, including almost 25% of physicians and around 40% of nurses, say they intend to leave the profession altogether.
According to Murthy, if burnout continues to worsen and more workers decide to leave their jobs, people's ability to receive care, including preventive and emergency care, will be negatively impacted. "It will make it harder for our nation to ensure we are ready for the next public health emergency," Murthy adds. "Health disparities will worsen in a world where care is more scarce. And costs will continue to rise."
Workers' welfare must be a priority
Last month, Murthy released a new Surgeon General's advisory on burnout among health care workers "to call our nation to attention and action to address this crisis," he writes.
According to Murthy, "health workers need real support and systemic change from health systems, private and public insurers, educational institutions and other leaders." In the advisory, Murthy offers several recommendations to help organizations support and retain health care workers, including:
- Paying workers a living wage, offering paid sick and family leave, and giving adequate rest breaks while on the job
- Establishing a chief wellness/well-being officer to help track workers' well-being and make changes as needed
- Offering confidential mental health services, such as hotlines and employee assistance programs
- Improving mental health coverage for health workers, including by expanding telehealth coverage for behavioral health care
- Reducing workers' administrative burden by implementing fully electronic documentation systems for prior authorization and other requirements
"This is about more than health. It's about our moral obligation to take care of those who have taken care of us," Murthy writes. "At a time when the health workforce has been hit hard, we can commit to making this moment one where health workers recognize that their service and suffering have not gone unnoticed; that we do not take their dedication for granted; and that their health, safety and well-being are as much a priority as the well-being of the people in their care."
Ultimately, "[h]ealth workers have had our backs during our backs during our darkest, most difficult moments," Murthy writes. "It's time for us to have theirs." (Murthy, USA Today, 6/14)