Hospital execs describe COVID's toll on mental health of front-line personnel

Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi met with health care professionals in Hoffman Estates Monday to discuss the pandemic's impact on the mental health of front-line medical workers, and how $140 million in federal funding might help address their needs.

Concerns about family, an inability to switch off from their jobs, and added responsibilities - such as being present for patients' last rites in place of loved ones - are among the unrelenting demands COVID-19 has brought, they told Krishnamoorthi, a Democrat from Schaumburg.

All of it has caused an unusually high percentage of physicians to consider or take early retirement, while nurses have borne the brunt of the pandemic's toll on the health care system, they said.

Held at Amita St. Alexius Medical Center, where the Illinois' first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed, the forum was a way to learn what's working and what new avenues the funding could assist, Krishnamoorthi said.

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 includes funding for programs addressing the mental health needs of workers at hospitals and other health care providers.

Clifton Saper, director of clinical services for the Amita Health Behavioral Medicine Service Line, said that while support groups have been created for health care workers, many say they don't have the time to participate. More instruction on self-care - including how and when to take breaks - needs to be delivered to employees while they're doing their jobs, he said.

"I think we've gotten across that there's no shame in asking for help," Saper added.

However, Dr. Barbara Jericho of the American Society of Anesthesiologists pointed out that applications for medical licenses and their renewals come with inquiries into physicians' mental health, including whether they've sought help.

"We should look at this," Krishnamoorthi responded. "It's obvious that if your professional status is going to be affected by seeking help, why would you do it?"

Jericho suggested the inquiry be replaced with a single question asking whether the applicant has a condition currently affecting his or her ability to practice medicine.

Dr. Shubhrajan Wadyal, whose responsibilities at Amita Health include medical director of the inpatient adolescent unit, said long-term benefits could come from learning about mental health stressors and their relief at this time.

Citing the adage that necessity is the mother of invention, Wadyal said many breakthroughs occur during times of crisis.

Krishnamoorthi said it's the hope of many that the pandemic will ultimately produce something of benefit.

"Let's get to a new better, not just a new normal," he said.

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