COVID-19-Related Stress on Physicians

Robert Frierson, MD; Steven Lippmann, MD


South Med J. 2021;114(11):727-731. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) was first reported in December 2019.[1] As of February 2, 2021, more than 104,333,878 individuals worldwide were documented with the infection, including 2,265,559 deaths.[2] In the United States, there have been >26,545,905 cases and 450,273 deaths.[2] The psychological and socioeconomic toll has been substantial for patients, family members, and frontline healthcare workers.[3,4]

Patients have endured uncertainty regarding prognosis, hospital-mandated separation from family members, loss of accustomed coping mechanisms, and resurgence of substance abuse or psychiatric disorders. The stress of frontline physicians has been considerable, fueled by shortages of personal protective equipment, concerns about personal infection and transmission to family members, longer work hours, and shortages of intensive care–trained staff.[3] Reported manifestations of physician stress have included sleep deprivation, higher rates of depression, somatization, anxiety, obsessive compulsive behavior, and posttraumatic stress.[4,5] There also has been a greater propensity for physician burnout. Burnout comprised three dimensions: emotional exhaustion; cynicism or depersonalization, wherein health professionals distance themselves from patients under their care; and a sense of diminished personal achievement, with dissatisfaction and feelings of diminished competency.[6]

Experts recommend that physicians engage in open discussion of fear and anger related to the COVID-19 pandemic.[3] They also suggest heightened awareness of their personal vulnerability to the mental health sequelae associated with providing care for patients with COVID-19 infections.