As the country’s healthcare workers don their protective equipment –often in short supply – making up the front line response to the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic ravaging through the country and the world, a question rarely asked is: Who will care for our carers?
On Wednesday, an initiative to reach out to and support healthcare workers – particularly during this traumatic and stressful time of Covid-19, when nurses, doctors and the entire value chain in the healthcare human resources network are working day and night to respond to this epidemic – was launched.
The Healthcare Workers’ Care Network is a nationwide healthcare worker support network spearheaded by the SA Society of Psychiatrists, the SA Medical Association, the Psychological Society of SA, the SA Society of Anaesthesiologists and the SA Depression and Anxiety Group.
Healthcare workers across the country can call a toll-free 24-hour helpline – 080 021 2121 – which is manned by 200 volunteer psychologists who will connect them with pro-bono services.
The network also has more than 500 volunteer mental health professionals, including psychiatrists, psychologists, general practitioners, registered counsellors and social workers, who will provide help, intervention and support to all healthcare workers.
“Even before Covid-19, our healthcare workers were already struggling,” said psychiatrist Dr Antoinette Miric during the launch briefing.
“Burnout is the most commonly researched topic in terms of emotional distress in healthcare workers.”
A study published in the SA Medical Journal last year looked at 170 registrars – training doctors across specialities – in clinical medicine and found that they had a burnout rate of 84% and high emotional exhaustion and depersonalisation scores. The rate was highest in emergency registrars and anaesthetists.
Another study, in 2015, looking at burnout in anaesthetists in the public and private sectors, showed that 20% were burnt out in the private sector and 40% were burnt out in the public sector, Miric said.
“What’s concerning about these studies is that these professionals were registrars, so they’re still probably in the public service and they went into this epidemic already burnt out.”
And because South Africa has a limited number of healthcare workers and specialists compared with the population, the country needs an emotionally strong healthcare workforce.
This as they contend with exposure to Covid-19, having to work without sufficient personal protective equipment, the anxiety of passing on the virus to their loved ones, and workplace stress, among a host of other challenges on the front lines.
Which is where the Healthcare Workers’ Care Network intervenes, with the aim to help support healthcare workers become emotionally and mentally strong.
Dr Dhinesh Singh, a 51-year-old anaesthetist in the private sector in Cape Town, returned to work on Monday last week after testing positive for Covid-19 a few weeks ago. He contracted the virus from a patient he operated on 11 days before finding out the patient had Covid-19.
Singh had been asymptomatic at the time of his diagnosis and followed guidelines from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases to self-isolate for 14 days. He went on to have a mild illness, suffering only from headaches and muscle pain.
“It was a complete shock to me as I was completely asymptomatic. I had spent the previous three days [before diagnosis] running, cycling and swimming.
“The first feeling was denial and thinking it could be a false positive, but there is no such thing. The next is feeling tremendous guilt and anxiety over the inconvenience you may subject people to and how many people you could have infected during this time,” he said during the briefing.
Singh stressed the importance of being proactive once you have been found to be infected with the virus, contacting your contacts –separating close contacts from casual contacts – and letting them know your diagnosis so they can quarantine. Fortunately, and a great relief for him, all his contacts tested negative for Covid-19.
“I decided to be proactive in letting everybody know what my status was to help destigmatise the illness and get on with it. The reality is that many healthcare workers will get sick and, fortunately for me, if we can get the stigma and denial part of it out of the way we can start acting sooner.”
Singh said he was fortunate to have a supportive practice and colleagues around him during his illness, who welcomed him back to work with applause last Monday.
*Contact the The Healthcare Workers’ Care Network 24-hour toll-free helpline on 080 021 2121, SMS 43003 or visit healthcareworkerscarenetwork.org.za for immediate healthcare worker counselling and support