January 13, 2021

The Continued Struggle for Healthcare Workers and Their Families

By Nathan Bumbarger, MD, radiology resident at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

Photo of toddler holding hand of each parent

Being in residency during a pandemic is not something most residents imagined when they started medical school. The COVID-19 crisis has upended residents’ board exams, work schedules, and case logs. With the continued spread of the virus and the pending influenza season, will we return to lockdown? By the time of this article’s publication, some areas may already have. If so, what are the continued implications for residents who have no family to return to at the end of a long shift or no gatherings with friends to look forward to? For the residents with children, would a lockdown once again shrink the available pool of childcare and further strain monetary and emotional resources?

With the rolling closures of face-to-face schooling and restrictions at childcare centers, there are continued challenges for families — especially for those with two working parents. Many families have had to make new, creative childcare arrangements and/or face difficult career decisions. The prospect of having an older relative help with kids for weeks and months is not viable for many families due to the threat of contracting and spreading COVID-19. Furthermore, possible workplace exposures can spread to immediate family and directly into daycare centers. The need to report symptoms, get tested, and quarantine, as appropriate, is as important today as it was at the start of the pandemic in March. Hospital and residency leadership need to adapt scheduling to accommodate emergency childcare needs when exposures and quarantines inevitably happen.

Additional support needs to be made available to healthcare professionals, both with family and without, as their work may become more needed than ever. Mental health resources, including resiliency training, are needed in healthcare to prevent and mitigate provider burnout. Many, if not most, traditional stress relieving tools and activities are unavailable in the form of closed gyms, canceled social activities, locked movie theaters, and travel bans.

A focus on well-being is always necessary for residents and physicians. However, now more than ever, it is imperative. Tools and strategies to combat burnout, social isolation, depression, and suicide are desperately needed so that medical professionals can continue to function in an increasingly unrecognizable world. A focus on sleep, healthy food choices, exercise, and (for some) enough coffee to keep the motor running, are essential. Furthermore, prioritizing your family, staying financially healthy, and enjoying your passions are necessary for maintaining normalcy. This is why the ACR has a Well-Being program which includes a peer-reviewed Well-Being Index survey tool, support guide, and a trove of articles and resources.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy of the Department of Army/Navy/Air Force, Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.