Medical Workers Treating COVID-19 Patients Face Mental Health Risks

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Dr. Zaher Sahloul and nurses at a Chicago hospital
Health experts say it's crucial to acknowledge and mitigate those risks in the short and long terms.

Medical workers treating COVID-19 patients are at increased risk of mental health issues. Experts say it's crucial to acknowledge and mitigate those risks in the short and long terms.

"Not every medicine that you would like to give is available. Not every technology that you would like to provide is available. You have to make these decisions that are life-or-death on some patients," said Dr. Zaher Sahloul, a critical care physician.  

Sahloul recently contracted the coronavirus after treating COVID-19 patients at two Chicago hospitals. The Syrian American physician has treated war victims in refugee camps worldwide. He sees similarities with treating COVID-19 patients in the U.S. And he knows the burden doctors around the world face daily.

"You always deal with limited resources when you have a crisis, whether it's in Syria or Yemen or Gaza or in the United States. Also the ethical principles behind decision making in a crisis is not something intuitive," Sahloul said. 

In a recent study of more than 1,200 health care workers treating COVID-19 patients in China, a sizable portion reported symptoms of distress, depression, anxiety and insomnia. 

"This is going to have a very long tail of challenge for an entire cohort of health care workers," said Dr. Wendy Dean, the co-founder of a nonprofit dedicated to improving physicians' mental health.

She says those on the front lines of the crisis could experience not just trauma, but also low morale if they feel guilty for decisions they make.   

"Trauma is what people experience when they watch someone, for example, in the COVID crisis dying alone. Where the moral injury comes into that situation is that maybe that patient had to die alone because there wasn't enough personal protective equipment for the health care worker to go in and be with them."

Dean says it's important for medical workers to acknowledge the unprecedented nature of the crisis, be gentle with themselves and disconnect as much as possible.

"I've seen folks posting comments that they're worried they missed something, they worried they didn't provide the best care. And the reality is none of us is an expert in COVID yet. So the absolute best that you bring to your job every day is the best that you're doing for that patient."

As for Sahloul, he's looking forward to recovering so he can go back to work and help his colleagues. 

"I'm part of the resilience committee — it's funny we call it 'resilience committee' — in my hospital. But it is an important committee that is providing tips to our doctors and nurses and staff on how they can meditate, giving them also links to online resources and things like that. All of these things are important."