Doctor’s Day 2020 will be unlike any other

Doctor’s Day is March 30, 2020.  Usually, it is celebrated simply.  Recently, it means if you work for a health care organization, they may give you a gift, or they may have a special meal in the lounge.  Personally, I am grateful for that recognition.  Some of my favorite work jackets came to me for Doctor’s Day.  Usually, I take the time to appreciate how lucky I am to be part of this profession.  This year though, I’m changing how I view Doctor’s Day.  This year, I am taking the opportunity to celebrate physicians on a large scale.  It isn’t about me anymore; it’s about all physicians.

It has been trying times recently for physicians.  Even before the pandemic, burnout was in the mid 40 percent range.  The suicide rate among physicians is the highest of any profession.  Physicians have been frustrated trying to serve multiple bosses between patients, hospital systems, insurance companies, etc. when all we really want to do is take care of patients.

Patients haven’t been happy either.  High insurance costs and deductibles, surprise billing, and long waits for short appointments have made people increasingly frustrated.  Unfortunately, this malfunctioning system has often resulted in patients directing these frustrations at physicians despite our increasing inability to enact change.

Now our situation has shifted.  In a pandemic, we no longer have time to wax philosophically about how to overhaul the health care system in America—we have to act.  And physicians everywhere are acting.  They are stepping up to take care of the surges of people with COVID-19 in their communities.

As a hospitalist on this Doctor’s Day, I start a string of shifts taking care of people suspected of having COVID-19.  I have already stopped wearing jewelry, including my wedding ring, and have a routine of removing clothing and showering immediately at the end of my workday.  I’ve moved into my guest room and fully expect to live there for the foreseeable future.  I’ve already explained to my children that we won’t be able to hug or cuddle like we usually would.  My husband has to step up as the sole parent.  Every physician I know, personally or virtually, who is taking care of COVID-19 patients is experiencing higher levels of stress than most of us have ever known.  And while we’re experiencing higher levels of stress, we’re more alone than we’ve ever been as we distance ourselves from our families and our colleagues to try to protect them.

What can you do to support physicians during this time for Doctor’s Day 2020?

1. Show your physicians you appreciate them. This could take many forms.  Personally, the most meaningful gestures I’ve received were handwritten notes.  I have saved every note written to me by patients, colleagues, or administrators over the years.  If you have a patient portal option, you could send thanks electronically.  You can send a group note to the ER or hospitalists in your area.

2. Donate PPE. If you have N95 masks you could donate to your local health care establishment, please do so.  We can’t take care of you if we’re ill ourselves.

3. Stay home. Physicians are literally begging you to stay home.  We all want to do our best for everyone, and the chants of “We go to work for you.  Please stay home for us.” are really for your benefit as much as ours.  There are only so many beds.  Don’t make us choose who gets them.

4. Remember all of this when it’s over. After the pandemic has subsided, please remember that physicians were there.  Despite personal anxiety and concerns for the safety of our families, we keep showing up to take care of you.  When it’s time to get back to the business of improving our health system, please don’t forget how important physicians are to your care.

As for me, I plan to approach this Doctor’s Day more seriously than I ever have.  Some of my colleagues have died from COVID-19, and we may lose more before we’re through.  I will continue to use Doctor’s Day as a time to reflect on my place in this calling.  But more than that, I am going to start using it to celebrate other physicians.  I hope we all remember—not just on Doctor’s Day—the sacrifices physicians make.

Clarissa Barnes is an internal medicine physician.

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