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The COVID-19 pandemic has directly affected those working in clinical healthcare settings with reports of sympathetic distress and burnout, a serious psychological syndrome, common in media reports on hospital working conditions.

Jodi Halpern, a professor in UC Berkeley School of Public Health’s Joint Medical Program (JMP) and Adrian Anzaldua, a graduate student in the JMP, look at the risk of burnout during a crisis like COVID-19 and recommend improvements to the structure of health care, in an essay published recently in the Hastings Center Report.

Halpern and Anzaldua point out that, normally, clinicians balance their sense of duty with “engaged curiosity” toward their patients, which is a source of meaning and connection as well as a guard against burnout (though burnout was rampant in healthcare, even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit).

However, during a prolonged crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, clinicians provide care out of sense of duty, especially the duty of “nonabandonment.” Halpern and Anzaldua argue that when duty is relied on too heavily, without the empathic element, the risk of burnout increases. They advocate for the whole structure of healthcare being improved—by making health care workers’ well-being foundational to the profession—to prevent the loss of a generation of empathic clinicians.

“We need a new model of healthcare professionalism, centered on the principle of clinical empathy, that encourages protest and protective action when our patients’ needs are not being met and when, as during COVD, providers’ safety needs are not being met either,” say the authors. “An empathic healthcare system will require structural changes, including the development of a real safety net for all patients and the allocation of additional clinical resources so that providers can care for patients without risking their own safety.”

Read the original paper on the Hastings Center Report