Physician Self-Care During the Pandemic
By Bob Lee MD

As I recall my training throughout medical school, the notion of self-care was never heavily emphasized.  It was not until orientation during my internship that someone mentioned to me that it is okay to take time off if you are sick (and in fact should be encouraged for patient safety), and to be kind to yourself, because you deserve it!  One of my surgery intern colleagues told me about a time that he called in sick for one day due to fever, and his fellow residents ridiculed him daily for the following two weeks, asking him things such as was he on his death bed or was he septic, and therefore not able to work.  

Fortunately, with the residency work hour rule and more widely publicized knowledge regarding physician burnout and suicide awareness, more physicians (myself included) are beginning to embrace the concept of self-care.  I feel I do a good job teaching my patients the importance of sleep, relaxation, healthy diet, and exercise.  Yet when it comes to myself I found it rather difficult, at least in the beginning.  

During the onset of the pandemic, due to the non-urgent nature of the care provided by my department, we transitioned to purely virtual care for two months.  My patient load was quite low, giving me more free time to exercise which made me happy.  I realized however that I was unstimulated rather quickly. 

When the clinic reopened for in-person visits, I began feeling guilty as my ER/ICU/Internal Medicine and Primary Care colleagues as well as other frontline workers were risking their lives and health to serve COVID patients as I was doing “elective” procedures and clinic visits. To alleviate that guilt I began doing more for my patients during their clinic visits so they could decrease the number of return visits and further minimize the risk of catching COVID.  What I did not realize at that time is that this was burning me out.  Adding the mask and other PPE and restrictions requires more effort to perform the same tasks compared to pre-pandemic.  In doing more for my patients, I further accelerate my own fatigue.  

Burnout is something that is hard for me to detect myself.  It was not until I talked extensively to my family and friends that I realized what was happening to me.  I am not the best version of myself when I’m burnt out in terms of being a husband, father, friend, or physician.  Nowadays I try to “practice what I preach” to my patients; adequate sleep, regular exercise, good nutrition and meaningful interaction with family and friends.  I am grateful that there are people who care for me deeply in my life, and hopefully, I can learn from this experience to better care for myself moving forward.

If you are experiencing burnout:

  • Seek support from your hospital administration, attending colleagues, friends, or family
  • Speak up by keeping an open line of communication with family, friends, and colleagues about how you’re feeling about the burnout you’re experiencing

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