So many mixed emotions as I scrolled the multiple acknowledgments on social media this recent Doctors’ Day. Although it is nice to be recognized, are we just supposed to forget the recent hostility and disrespect? Can we ever really thank those on the frontlines who risked their lives during the pandemic? The recognition comes too late for the many doctors and trainees who did not survive. How do we honor their sacrifice?
Burnout was a crisis before the pandemic arrived. Physicians see medicine as a service, a calling, while administrators apply their business metrics to this art of caring. When our institutions demean this calling with labels of “unproductive” or identify an entire team as a “financial burden,” it exasperates burnout. When the bottom line takes precedence over caring for the patients, our supposed mission, we lose faith. By dismissing those of us dedicated to the care of the seriously ill, they demean a whole population of patients.
As the leadership remained ensconced in their offices, sheltered from the suffering and death on the wards, we toiled on. An invitation to leadership to observe our work and get to know the team was dismissed as unnecessary. Lack of empathy destroys morale. How do we expect the staff to care for our patients if we don’t demonstrate our care for them? Compassion was too much to ask for our team members who lost loved ones. Who are we when we cannot support our own after death arrives on their doorstep? Instead of acknowledging our challenges, we were loudly ordered to “have a positive attitude.” It was a shocking betrayal of a team dedicated to person-centered care.
When the head of the department could not articulate the benefit of our work during a pandemic, it was clear that there was no reason to stay. She had failed to do her homework and could not translate the benefit and cost savings of our labor. A colleague brushed off the hostility and toxic environment by responding, “You’re too thin-skinned.” Of course, that was my initial reaction, too. I blamed myself. However, when I gave it more thought, I rejected that analysis. I was routinely subjected to angry patients and families; it comes with the territory of caring for those in crisis. Anger is part of grief; I knew that. I would frequently remind myself, “It’s not about me.” It serves as the mantra in my field. This was different. It was personal.
The pandemic lifted the veil on many institutions with flowery mission statements that are merely a marketing strategy. Under the surface, a darker reality was hiding; staff and providers were expendable. The experience for many was having our expertise devalued and concerns dismissed, while support came in the form of pizza, sweets, and swag with the company logo. The recognition feels shallow and insincere. Many of us risked our lives for institutions and leaders that did not truly value our commitment and passion for medicine. When we’ve lost faith in the field, when we no longer trust our own instincts, how do we move forward? How do we recover?
The author is an anonymous physician.
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