The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced a new set of challenges many doctors have not experienced in their lifetimes. As we continue to live through this extraordinary global event, it becomes increasing important that you continue to look after your own health while caring for the health and safety of others.

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed a significant toll on our community and has caused uncertainty and fear around what is currently happening, and of what’s to come. This uncertainty and fear has been heightened for medical professionals who are dealing with the impact of COVID-19 on a daily basis. 

As the pandemic continues, anxieties among doctors and health professionals are continually evolving.

Dr Kym Jenkins, psychiatrist and immediate past president of RANZCP, says tangible worries that have troubled many healthcare workers include safety issues, such as the resourcing of PPE for staff and whether hospitals are able to accommodate an influx of COVID-19 patients. There also remains the possible risk of contracting the virus while responding on the front-line.

“One of the most challenging things to work out from a mental health point of view is whether the healthcare worker is suffering from a mental health illness or whether they’re experiencing an understandable response to a completely abnormal situation,” explained Dr Jenkins.

Although an increase in stress and anxiety has occurred across the healthcare profession due to COVID-19, those with a previous history of anxiety are more vulnerable at this time. Generally speaking, many of us have an increased level of baseline anxiety during COVID-19. The initial worries that were keeping us awake at night are to do with the fear that the worst is yet to come, not dissimilar to the devastating scenes observed overseas. 

Doctors in private practice are also under significant pressure, adequately safeguarding their practice and staff, dealing with patients every day who may or may not be infected, shifting from face-to-face consults to learning how to navigate effectively through telehealth, and deciding whether to distance themselves from their family to avoid contaminating their loved ones in case they were infected, to name a few. 

The financial impact on private practice and allied health services is also becoming apparent, due to the temporary reduction of non-urgent elective surgery and social distancing measures restricting access to certain services. Those with families are having to juggle more roles, such as having to home school children and the stress that comes with blurring personal and professional lives.

The current situation and beyond  

As we continue through more changes and disruption, we have witnessed parts of the economy gradually reopened and social restrictions slowly lifted. Although uncertainties around Victoria’s increase in cases, as well as clusters in parts of Sydney and regional NSW, continue to cause uncomfortable and uncertain times. 

This means also learning to deal with the consequences of living through a pandemic. 

“As time goes on we’re going to see more depression and despondency become apparent. The source of anxiety is going to be less in how people are handling things but a shift to those secondary considerations that aren’t directly related to the virus. It will be regarding the impact it’s having on their lives in areas such as relationships, career and income,” says Dr Jenkins.

As the world adapts to contain and fight the virus, the medical profession will have to accept COVID-19 as a longer-term, evolving event. This may mean that social norms will not go back to how it was pre-COVID-19, the general public will conform to a heightened sense of hygiene, and we will deal with evolving sets of anxieties as they unfold. 

Looking after your own mental health while you look after the community 

As we remain optimistic, the medical profession will emerge stronger together after having survived a pandemic. Not only are doctors faced with the enormous task of caring for others’ health and safety, but it is essential that you continue to look after your own mental health alongside your patients’.  

Mental health resources, support groups for health professionals, and COVID-related forums for doctors are available and updated on a regular basis such as Pandemic Kindness Movement ; Hand n Hand and Mentate.

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This article was originally published in Avant’s ‘Connect’ magazine, with slight variation -‘Managing your health during a crisis’, written by Doctors’ Health Fund member and Avant Senior Medical Advisor Dr Richard Wilson.