How healthcare professionals cope with the COVID-19 pandemic

Disease and treatment 21. dec 2020 3 min Senior Researcher and Clinical Professor Selina Kikkenborg Berg Written by Kristian Sjøgren

Danish researchers investigated how healthcare professionals cope with balancing being professionals and putting themselves and their family at risk of COVID-19.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Denmark in the spring, researchers from Rigshospitalet launched a research project that would investigate how awaiting a test result for COVID-19 affects the mental health and well-being of patients, their relatives and healthcare professionals.

The purpose was to explore some of the aspects that are not associated with COVID-19 itself but instead are related to being human during a pandemic.

The results of the healthcare professionals’ experiences have now been published, and politicians and managers in hospitals and elsewhere in the health and social care sector should consider this information as they prepare for a possible third wave of COVID-19.

“Our results show that healthcare professionals had a very altruistic approach to being on the frontline during the beginning of a global pandemic. They were willing to continue to work and sacrifice a lot personally to help and to minimize the risk of infecting others. But we can also see that healthcare professionals are getting exhausted,” explains a researcher behind the study, Selina Kikkenborg Berg, Senior Researcher and Clinical Professor, Centre for Cardiac, Vascular, Pulmonary and Infectious Diseases, Rigshospitalet, Copenhagen and Department of Clinical Medicine, Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, University of Copenhagen.

The research has been published in BMC Health Services Research.

Interviewed 15 healthcare professionals early in the pandemic

The researchers interviewed 15 healthcare professionals from the health and social care sector in March and April during the first wave of the pandemic. These included doctors, nurses, social and health care assistants and physiotherapists, who had all taken a COVID-19 test near Rigshospitalet.

The purpose of the interviews was to explore what healthcare professionals thought about their role during the ongoing pandemic and their risk of getting infected with a dangerous disease.

The researchers analysed the 15 interviews to extract recurring meaning or themes in the narratives.

No hotline to answer questions

The results show that healthcare professionals rarely feared for their own health or that of their families but that they might well fear transmitting the virus to patients.

Many chose to self-isolate so that they would not infect their family or take COVID-19 with them to work and potentially infect vulnerable patients.

The research also shows that many wanted a hotline to get answers to questions about COVID-19.

“Many have also been concerned that they had insufficient knowledge because they have been in an unfamiliar situation and have not had anywhere to go to get the answers they lacked,” says Selina Kikkenborg Berg.

Healthcare professionals: we do not want applause

An interesting finding is that the healthcare professionals have actually not been very enthusiastic about the tributes from people during the first months of the pandemic.

According to Selina Kikkenborg Berg, most healthcare professionals did not want the applause, which could appear condescending because it was not what they needed.

“A main point raised by healthcare professionals is that they would rather have better working conditions or hazard allowances or other more specific recognition of the enormous work they do every single day. They experience applause as verging on hypocrisy, and moreover, this type of recognition does not appear authentic. Healthcare professionals resent it,” says Selina Kikkenborg Berg.

The reward for being on the frontline should be in keeping with the sacrifice

Selina Kikkenborg Berg also says that the effects of healthcare professionals not feeling especially recognized during the first wave of COVID-19 have become visible.

Some nurses have received a lump sum of DKK 1,500, and that was all.

Since then, gratitude for their efforts has also dried up, and today society is instead focusing on compensating mink farmers and bridal wear shops.

“This can be very difficult to accept if you have skin damage because you have to wear personal protective equipment all day. Recruiting personnel to work on wards caring for people with COVID-19 is now very difficult. If the cost is social isolation, incredible work pressure, physical wounds and migraine but they receive no other recognition than DKK 1,500 and a round of applause, then getting nurses to take an extra shift is very difficult, and this is sorely needed,” explains Selina Kikkenborg

Much work ahead for politicians, senior managers and middle managers

Selina Kikkenborg Berg thinks that politicians should examine the new study to better understand how healthcare professionals who will be on the frontline in a third wave of COVID-19 are feeling.

Politicians, senior managers and middle managers need to remember that making healthcare professionals content and secure at work requires a very specific type of management and recognition.

She acknowledges that steps have been taken to improve conditions, but much remains to be done.

“Recruiting enough personnel is difficult, so then you have to make people work at a location in which they would rather not be. You can then ask yourself how you would ideally like to be cared for if you developed COVID-19: by someone who wants to be there or by someone who has to be there?” asks Selina Kikkenborg Berg.

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