Healthcare students weigh workforce options in the face of the pandemic, COVID burnout

Healthcare burnout
Photo courtesy of Francine Orr, Los Angeles Times

Long hours and heavy patient loads brought on by the ever-changing face of COVID-19 have fueled a condition known as medical burnout. 

Physician burnout is caused by emotional fatigue, depersonalization and diminished professional achievement due to understaffing and difficult working conditions. 

“Hospitals have had a great deal of turnover in their staff during the course of the pandemic,” said Dr. Amy Spurlock, associate divisional dean and chief nursing administrator at Boise State University. “Nationwide, the estimates are anywhere from 30% to 70% of healthcare workers are experiencing a severe burnout.”  

On Jan. 20, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced $103 million in awards to relieve the nation’s urgent staffing needs

These awards stand by proven strategies to help health care workers build resiliency and efficient responses to the high-stress environment.

Jordi Gonzalez, nurse manager of the ER, speaks with staff before a shift transition at MLK Community Hospital on Jan. 13, 2022
[Jordi Gonzalez, nurse manager of the ER, speaks with staff before a shift transition at MLK Community Hospital in Los Angeles, California, on Jan. 13, 2022]
Photo courtesy of Francine Orr, Los Angeles Times

The Health and Public Safety Workforce Resiliency Training Program, a course rewarded by the HHS, is a curriculum designed to reduce burnout within the health profession, including health care students. 

“We are lucky to have outstanding clinical agencies that have worked very hard to ensure that our students have meaningful clinical experiences at a time when they are working under severe stress just from having to deal with increased patient acuity and increased hospitalizations with COVID,” Spurlock said.

Those working in intensive care and COVID-19 units pose a higher risk of burnout compared to other hospital workers. 

As health care students function in unpredictable clinical settings, the burnout rate of these students stands between 31% and 49.6%. 

A junior, who is double majored in nursing and public health at Boise State University, requested to be anonymous in fear of their position in the nursing program and future employment. 

“I feel like when you go into nursing school you have this idea of what it’s going to be. I get to help and nurse people back to health, but it’s morbid,” the anonymous source said. “It’s just very sad.” 

The American Association of Critical Care Nurses surveyed 6,000 of their members. They found that 66% have contemplated quitting because of the pandemic

Nothing could have ever prepared them for the mayhem COVID has brought.

“This little girl sent her dad, who was intubated, a letter. He could still hear even though he was comatose, so we had to go in and read the letter from the daughter to her dad,” the anonymous source said. “It was heartbreaking. She knew he was going to die.”  

Although many physicians are leaving their practices because of the pandemic, others are stepping up to nurse people back to health. 

“At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was a little cautious about the healthcare path that I chose, but now it has made me realize just how much I want to get into the field as soon as possible,” wrote Brooke Zander, first-year respiratory care major at Boise State. “I have always wanted to work in the healthcare field because I love to help people, and I want to make sure people are healthy and cared for.” 

Although interventions address medical fatigue, physician burnout is an inevitable outcome as the pandemic persists.

“I think that this pandemic has really shown the strength and resilience of every health care worker, from nurses and doctors to therapists and CNAs. Each one of them has such an important job to do, and each one of them does it well,” Zander wrote. “Knowing that I will have such a strong support team when I enter the workforce is such a wonderful feeling.” 

In the meantime, the search for the most effective solution to medical burnout continues.

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