Physicians and Health Systems Can Reduce Fear Around COVID-19

A message from a Chief Wellness Officer

Peter M. Yellowlees, MBBS, MD


March 18, 2020

We are at a time, unfortunately, of significant public uncertainty and fear of "the coronavirus." Mixed and inaccurate messages from national leaders in the setting of delayed testing availability have heightened fears and impeded a uniformity in responses, medical and preventive.

Despite this, physicians, nurses, and other health professionals across the country, and in many other countries, have been addressing the medical realities of this pandemic in a way that should make every one of us health professionals proud—from the Chinese doctors and nurses to the Italian intensivists and primary care physicians throughout many countries who have treated patients suffering from, or fearful of, a novel disease with uncertain transmission characteristics and unpredictable clinical outcomes.

It is now time for physicians and other health providers in the United States to step up to the plate and model appropriate transmission-reducing behavior for the general public. This will help reduce the overall morbidity and mortality associated with this pandemic and let us return to a more normal lifestyle as soon as possible. Physicians need to be reassuring but realistic, and there are concrete steps that we can take to demonstrate to the general public that there is a way forward.

First the basic facts. The United States does not have enough intensive care beds or ventilators to handle a major pandemic. We will also have insufficient physicians and nurses if many are quarantined. The tragic experience in Italy, where patients are dying from lack of ventilators, intensive care facilities, and staff, must not be repeated here.

Many health systems are canceling or reducing outpatient appointments and increasingly using video and other telehealth technologies, especially for assessing and triaging people who believe that they may have become infected and are relatively asymptomatic. While all of the disruptions may seem unsettling, they are actually good news for those of us in healthcare. Efforts to "flatten the curve" will slow the infection spread and help us better manage patients who become critical.

So, what can physicians do?

  1. Make sure you are getting good information about the situation. Access reliable information and data that are widely available through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes for Health, and the World Health Organization. Listen to professional news organizations, local and national. Pass this information to your patients and community.

  2. Obviously, when practicing clinically, follow all infection control protocols, which will inevitably change over time. Make it clear to your patients why you are following these protocols and procedures.

  3. Support and actively promote the public health responses to this pandemic. Systematic reviews of the evidence base have found that isolating ill persons, testing and tracing contacts, quarantining exposed persons, closing schools and workplaces, and avoiding crowding are more effective if implemented immediately, simultaneously (ie, school closures combined with teleworking for parents), and with high community compliance.

  4. Practice social distancing so that you remain as much in control as you can. This will make you feel psychologically better and safer, as well as reduce the risk for transmission. Take the essential precautionary measures that we are all being asked to take. Wash your hands. Do not shake hands. Clean shared items. Do not go to large public gatherings. Minimize large group travel as much as you can. Use video to see your patients or your own doctor.

  5. Connect and re-connect with people you trust and love. See your family, your partner, your children, your friends. Speak to them on the phone and nourish those relationships. See how they feel and care for each other. They will be worried about you. Reassure them. Be in the moment with them and use the importance of these relationships to give yourself a chance not to overthink any fears you might have.

  6. Look after yourself physically. Physical fitness is good for your mental health. While White House guidelines suggest avoiding gyms, you can still enjoy long walks and outdoor activities. Take the weekend off and don't work excessively. Sleep well—at least 7-8 hours. Yoga and tai chi are great for relaxation, as are some apps. One that I use personally is CBT-I Coach, a free app made by the VA for veterans, which has a series of really excellent meditation and relaxation tools.

  7. Do not panic. Uncertainty surrounding the pandemic makes all of us anxious and afraid. It is normal to become hypervigilant, especially with our nonstop media. It is normal to be concerned when we feel out of control and when we are hearing about a possible future catastrophe, especially when fed with differing sets of information from multiple sources and countries.

  8. Be careful with any large decisions you are making that may affect the lives of yourself and your loved ones. Think about your decisions and try to take the long view; and run them by your spouse, partner, or friends. This is not a time to be making sudden big decisions that may be driven unconsciously, in part at least, by fear and anxiety.

  9. Realize that all of these societal disruptions are actually good for us in healthcare, and they help your family and friends understand the importance of slowing the disease's spread. That's good for healthcare and good for everyone.

Finally, remember that "this is what we do," to quote Doug Kirk, MD, chief medical officer of UC Davis Health. We must look after our patients. But we also have to look after ourselves so that we can look after our patients. We should all be proud of our work and our caring. And we should model our personal behavior to our patients and to our families and friends so that they will model it to their community networks. That way, more people will keep well, and we will have more chance of "flattening the curve" and reducing the morbidity and mortality associated with COVID-19.

Peter M. Yellowlees, MBBS, MD, is a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, Davis. He is a longtime Medscape contributor.

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