By Dr Liz Jenkinson, Senior Lecturer in Health Psychology and Co-chair of the UWE Bristol Healthy University Group
With a new variant pushing healthcare capacity to its limits, understanding the challenges of responding to Covid-19 on the frontline is pivotal. As a Health Psychologist, I am driven to inform and develop evidence-based policy and practice in healthcare. I have been working with Jo Daniels and Sophie Harris at the University of Bath, Edd Carlton (University of Bristol/Royal College of Emergency Medicine) and Tom Roberts (North Bristol NHS Trust/Royal College of Emergency Medicine) to capture the scale of the challenge faced by healthcare professionals responding to the pandemic. Despite the popular media narrative of healthcare workers being our Covid-19 heroes, our research documents that many simply do not feel that way in terms of how they are being supported. The research highlights how frontline healthcare workers are angry at being treated as ‘Covid cannon fodder, not Covid heroes’ after responding to the virus for nearly two years.
‘It’s been ugly’: A large-scale qualitative study into the difficulties frontline doctors faced across two waves of the COVID-19 pandemic’ is the first study of its kind to capture the views of over 1,300 doctors in the UK and Ireland responding to Covid-19 since early 2020. The study was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health this week and featured in the Sunday Times, BBC news and beyond.
Despite working at ‘100% capacity, 100% of the time’, the frontline healthcare workers told researchers of their frustrations at those not following public health advice, and towards Government for ‘failing in so many ways to support us.’ Doctors said they felt ‘expendable’ and left traumatised by events. The dual issues of a worrying lack of support for doctors’ basic needs (e.g. insufficient places to rest, food to eat, and relentless shift patterns), and a significant lack of appropriate psychological support to help them decompress was also highlighted.
Participants recruited for the study comprised frontline doctors who worked in emergency medicine, anaesthetics, and intensive care medicine in all parts of the UK and Ireland. All genders, ethnicities and seniority levels were represented in the sample of 1,379 participants who responded to a longitudinal survey asking them to answer freely: ‘What has been most difficult about the pandemic?’
Clinical psychologist at the University of Bath, Dr Jo Daniels, explains: “We are seeing increasing levels of staff attrition, absenteeism, poor psychological health, and loss of life, yet frontline doctors are expected to just carry on.”
These findings build on recent work, including the CERA study, which sought to quantify psychological distress experienced by emergency doctors during Covid-19, and the Covid-19 Clinician Cohort (CoCCo) study model, which highlighted a hierarchy of needs for frontline workers responding to the pandemic. These ranged from supporting workers’ basic needs with hot food and drinks, through to embedded peer support, psychological care, and interventions. The team say it is imperative policymakers learn lessons from this study as they respond to the impact from the latest Omicron variant.
Dr Edd Carlton, Professor of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine and Emergency medicine doctor, co-authored the research. He said: “This work demonstrates the massive impact the pandemic has had on our frontline medical workforce in terms of working conditions, morale and psychological distress. What is most worrying is that Covid-19 has compounded issues that were already commonplace pre-pandemic and now are putting a tangible strain on doctors’ own physical and mental health.”
My work at UWE Bristol continues to collaborate with the team, bringing my expertise in Health Psychology into this space. We are very grateful to those who gave up their time to tell their stories, which were striking in their agreement that this had been unrelenting, traumatic and had placed unsustainable pressure on frontline doctors. As we move into what may prove to be yet another wave of the pandemic, this research shows that there needs to be a renewed focus on properly supporting doctors to protect their health and wellbeing so that they can be there for all of us when we most need them.