Everyone in this industry have experienced a profound sense of exhaustion, trauma, grief, fear, and frustration. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, continues to make this issue a priority with a recent article.
I can wholeheartedly raise my hand and say “I am” to that title. I recently wrote on this—sharing my experiences working in public health during this time. It’s not just public health that has struggled through this 3-year pandemic of COVID-19, but also healthcare workers. Really, anyone working in health during this has experienced a profound sense of exhaustion, trauma, grief, fear, and frustration. My experiences in infection prevention have meant that I’ve had one foot in public health and one in healthcare, both of which have weighed immensely.
We’re increasingly discussing long COVID, but it seems like the times of support for our health workers—like the banging of pots and pans in New York City—have drastically passed. The United States, and so much of the world, is done with COVID. Over the inconvenience of a pandemic that required us to promote public health and take measures like masking and occupancy limits. Perhaps one of the hardest parts of this pandemic for health workers is the continued onslaught of the disease. The waves of critically ill patients, losing friends and family, risking your own safety, and not a moment to just recover.
Not a moment to heal before the next wave comes. With each wave though, comes less interest in responding to the pandemic. Slower rates of vaccination and loosening CDC guidance to combat the realities of our waning interest in responding to the marathon that is a pandemic.
Surgeon General and physician Vivek Murthy, MD, recently wrote on this within the New England Journal of Medicine. In his second term of service within the role of Surgeon General, Murthy has been faced with a pandemic mismanaged by the previous administration, growing frustration, diminishing vaccination rates for vaccine-preventable diseases, mass shootings, monkeypox outbreaks, and so much more. Perhaps one of the most pragmatic and empathic voices of US government health response, Dr. Murthy has continued to keep attention to health worker burnout and well-being.
In his perspective article, Dr. Murthy points to issues that were present long before COVID, but were worsened by the strain of a three-year pandemic. “These systemic shortfalls have pushed millions of health workers to the brink. Some 52% of nurses (according to the American Nurses Foundation) and 20% of doctors (Mayo Clinic Proceedings) say they are planning to leave their clinical practice. Shortages of more than 1 million nurses are projected by the end of the year (US Bureau of Labor Statistics); a gap of 3 million low-wage health workers is anticipated over the next 3 years (Mercer). And we face a significant shortage of public health workers precisely when we need to strengthen our defenses against future public health threats. Health worker burnout is a serious threat to the nation’s health and economic security,” Murthy wrote.
Earlier this year, he issued a Surgeon General’s Advisory on health worker burnout and well-being, drawing attention to this growing issue by declaring it a crisis that required national priority. Citing several actions, he implores us to take this crisis seriously and waste no time in response. Murthy calls for necessary work to reduce burnout and improve well-being, such as reducing administrative burdens standing between health workers and their patients, building a culture that supports well-being, strengthening public investment in the workforce and public health, and increasing access to mental health care for health workers.
Acknowledging the Herculean effort this work will take, he emphasizes the urgency and importance of it though, pointing to years of inaction that brought us to this point but a pivotal current time where we can in fact drive change and improve the health and well-being of our health workers.