Mental health of healthcare workers impacted

They are at centre of COVID-19 pandemic
  • Deborah Condon

COVID-19 has had a big impact on the mental health of healthcare workers, it has been claimed.

According to Dr John F.A. Murphy, editor of the Irish Medical Journal, "the very nature of medical care has placed them at the centre of the pandemic and they are now practising differently to the way they normally do".

Dr Murphy pointed out that the requirement to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) and the need for reduced contact with patients "is very alien to the way that medicine is practised, as normally, patients are provided with frequent and close professional contact".

Another source of anxiety, he noted, is the isolation among staff themselves.

"The normal close communication lines and camaraderie with colleagues has been interrupted. The social interaction at meal breaks has been reduced. In other words, an important psychological support system has been abruptly removed," he said.

Dr Murphy also highlighted the anxiety felt by healthcare workers about the fact that they could contract the virus at work, and potentially spread it to family members.

He said that this is a particular issue for those living with older people, immunocompromised people or people with a chronic medical condition.

He also pointed out that these fears are "well founded".

"Data from a number of countries has found that healthcare workers are likely to contract the virus. They account for 25% of the positive cases, although they represent under 3% of the general population," he commented.

Currently in Ireland, healthcare workers account for 29% of all confirmed COVID-19 cases.

He said that other concerns among healthcare workers that tend to receive less attention include access to childcare and being deployed to other areas, such as non-ICU nurses having to work in ICU.

Dr Murphy emphasised that during a pandemic, the demands on healthcare staff are "extraordinary and long lasting". For example, during the SARS epidemic, half of healthcare workers experienced psychological stress.

However, one of the big issues about this crisis is that normal stress coping mechanisms, such as exercise, sport, leisure time and spending time with friends, are now severely restricted.

Meanwhile, Dr Murphy also highlighted that the issue of death among staff "is a constant worry".
He pointed to the situation in the UK, where by April 22, there had been 106 deaths among NHS staff, almost 100 of these with patient-facing rolls.

These deaths were made up of 33% nurses, 25% healthcare workers and 17% doctors, and 61% of all of those who died were based in hospitals.

Dr Murphy said that "uncertainty is a common cause of concern and so healthcare workers need clear and frequent communication about what will happen next".

However, one thing does appear to be clear, he added.

"It seems inevitable that COVID-19 will continue to cause clinical and personal difficulties for healthcare workers for many weeks and months into the future."


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