How To Support People In Health Care Working During Coronavirus

People who work in medicine are being stretched beyond the limit in this COVID-19 outbreak. Take care of them.
Those in the medical field — from doctors to nurses to physician assistants to receptionists to housekeeping staff — are on the front lines of the COVID-19 outbreak. Here's how to help their mental health.
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Those in the medical field — from doctors to nurses to physician assistants to receptionists to housekeeping staff — are on the front lines of the COVID-19 outbreak. Here's how to help their mental health.

With the new coronavirus continuing to be a front-and-center issue, health care workers are working double time. They’re providing comfort and care to those who have COVID-19, screening potential patients and fielding questions from everyone else.

We’ve all been told to get plenty of sleep, wash our hands and keep away from crowds ― but what about your medical practitioner neighbors, family or friends? In such busy times, these people need support as well, and many of them are too overstretched to reach out and ask for it.

“If you know of anyone who works in any aspect of health care in any role ― nurse, housekeeper, kitchen support, security officer, doctor, pharmacist, lab technician, supply chain, etc. ― it’s important to keep them in mind at this crucial time,” said Terry Hudson-Jinks, the senior vice president and chief nursing officer at Tufts Medical Center.

Hudson-Jinks said these busy professionals may need to adjust their schedules in the weeks ahead to make sure health centers and hospitals can handle the influx of ill patients.

“We need them all to keep our doors open and care delivered, and if you know someone in these roles, you can make a difference,” she explained.

We talked to some experts who are currently on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic to get their advice on how you can help make a difference in their worlds:

Follow trusted, expert advice

Natasha Bhuyan, a practicing family physician in Phoenix, said you can help by heeding expert and government-issued advice. This includes washing your hands and practicing social distancing.

“And don’t stockpile medical masks or hand sanitizer in mass amounts so front-line health care providers and patients in need are able to access them,” she said.

Additionally, refrain from trusting or sharing any unvetted health information on social media. Check websites like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.

“One of the biggest ways to help is to ignore clickbait and only get information from reputable sources like the CDC,” said Tiffany Clemmy, an emergency room nurse in Onslow County, North Carolina. She noted that much of the information available online is not accurate (or is taken wildly out of context) and is unnecessarily adding to the public’s panic.

Reach out to a doctor if you can before heading to the ER

If you’re sick in any capacity and it’s not an emergency, call your doctor or do a telemedicine appointment first. This applies if you have mild COVID-19 symptoms, like a cough or a low fever, as well.

Rushing to the ER or urgent care in a panic can “clog the system, increase wait times for the critically ill, add significantly to stress levels for health care workers and expose you to other diseases,” Clemmy explained.

Check in on their well-being

A simple “How are you doing?” can go a long way with someone who is knee-deep in coronavirus chaos. Just keep in mind that “the majority of individuals are more than likely to say they’re fine as opposed to admit to being stressed,” said Ashley McGirt, a licensed mental health therapist in Seattle.

The key is a tiny bit of distraction. McGirt suggested sending a thoughtful text, sharing a funny story or joke to lighten the mood, or getting in some personal time over Skype, FaceTime or Zoom.

Cook their meals for them

As these folks manage high levels of stress and fatigue, taking the “What’s for dinner?” question out of the equation can provide a nice reprieve.

If you live with or are the spouse of a health care worker, make a home-cooked meal for them. Additionally, “food via delivery service (like Postmates) or a care package with their favorite snacks at home or work is highly recommended,” said Sharon Cobb, program director and assistant professor at the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science.

Cobb also said it can help to make sure that your loved one is frequently hydrating themselves and, if you live with them, you can help them start their day with their favorite latte or smoothie.

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Offer to help out with child care if you’re in a position to do so

Many schools and child care centers are closing in an attempt to limit the spread of coronavirus, creating huge child care issues for health care workers. And “most health care workers do not have the option to work from home, and many are facing a significantly increased workload,” Clemmy said, adding that, in some positions, overtime might even be mandated.

Offering to take care of a health care worker’s children “will take a huge weight off of their shoulders, and allow them to focus on caring for those who need them most,” Clemmy said.

There are a few caveats with this that you should keep in mind: You should only volunteer if it’s something you’re able to handle. Also, make sure you’re not sick or haven’t been exposed to anyone who has been. The need to limit the spread of the virus is urgent, so it’s only best to do this in situations where you believe it’s healthy to do so.

Be a listening ear

“My brother ... is on the front lines in residency where he is taking care of a patient with coronavirus at his hospital. I can’t physically be there to help him out, but I am an ear to him, which is just as supportive and comforting for him,” said Bindiya Gandhi, a family medicine doctor in Decatur, Georgia.

She added that she’s found giving and showing him more compassion and love as well as just supporting him is “making a world of a difference.”

Respect transition time

The moments after arriving home serve as a kind of detox, and people’s needs for this time vary, said Laurie Helgoe, an associate professor of behavioral sciences at Ross University School of Medicine and a clinical psychologist who works with medical professionals.

“Some of us, especially the introverts among us, need a dose of nothing ― quiet, solitude, time to change, shower, think, or go for a short solitary walk or run,” she said, while others may “need to detox through conversation or shared activity.”

“As my role involves a lot of talking to patients, once I am home it is the last thing I want to do,” said Giuseppe Aragona, a general practitioner at Prescription Doctor. “I need to save my voice for the next day at work and ― mostly ― I need to recover mentally for a few minutes once I’m home.”

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Don’t make them your own personal coronavirus source

Tracey Evans, a research fellow at the U.K.’s University of Plymouth and a scientific writer, said to refrain from pestering your loved one with coronavirus questions, as the very last thing a friend would need is to be used as an information tool.

“They will be exhausted both physically and mentally,” she said.

Evans added that if you are going to chat with them, “state that the coronavirus is off-limits.”

“Their life is dominated by the virus, questions and concerns. Make it a coronavirus-free friendship, unless they lead it,” she said.

Provide normalcy

“In times of crisis, the simple things become anchors,” Helgoe said. Doing things like asking a loved one you live with if they want to join you on the couch to binge a new television show or making popcorn can go a long way in helping them shake off the day.

Helgoe said one of her colleagues told her that coming home to a clean place, having a spot to relax like a bath, and an outlet to do everyday activities like board games or reading really keeps her grounded. “Activity that served as a reminder that some part of our world and existence is sound, healthy, renewing, affirming,” Helgoe added.

Send them things that will boost their mood

Did video of a dog rolling down a hill make you laugh out loud today? Share it with a loved one in the medical field.

The simple, easy gesture of sending a meme, a positive news story, or a cute video, can go a long way, said Alexandra Friedmann Finkel, co-owner and therapist at Kind Minds Therapy in New York.

“Health care workers need distraction and positivity to interrupt the constant spiral of anxiety and tension that they are experiencing at the hospitals and community,” she said.

Have some patience if you’re a patient

“For patients, please try to understand when your doctor keeps you waiting during this crisis,” said Janette Nesheiwat, a family and emergency doctor in New York.

“Understand that we don’t sit to eat or drink or take any coffee breaks or smoke breaks; that we work 13- to 14-hour shifts straight in hot. painful, tight masks that are hard to breathe in,” she explained.

Express your gratitude

“Sometimes the simple things such as saying, ‘Thank you for taking the time to get back to me and being available when I need you’ are the most rewarding,” said David Nazarian, a physician at My Concierge MD in Beverly Hills.

“Expressing your gratitude and understanding can go much further than anything else one can provide to a health care provider,” he added. “In times of medical crisis or in the pandemic we are experiencing at this time, I truly appreciate all of the support, appreciation, trust and understanding that they provide me and my practice.”

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Provide them with the essentials everyone else is busy hoarding

If you have extra, share it with the people who need it the most.

“At this time, as our health care workers are working odd hours and long shifts, they may have not had the opportunity to buy supplies for home ― sanitizers, thermometer, disinfectants, etc.,” said Jagdish Khubchandani, a professor of health science at Ball State University in Indiana. “A bag of sanitizers, multivitamins, and chocolates with a card would be so touching and supportive ― it’s the gesture that counts.”

Do some chores

A little help goes a long way, especially for a medical professional who is currently stretched too thin and doesn’t have time to do the simple things that they used to be able to do, Aragona said.

If you can, do your loved one’s laundry or run an errand for them (again, only if it’s healthy to do so). They likely won’t have the time and it takes a mental load off of them.

Take COVID-19 seriously and lay off the jokes

Humor is important but so is acknowledging the severity of the pandemic. While some people may be making light of the situation, many people have been affected by COVID-19.

“Health care workers are putting in additional time and efforts to be there to help others. Much of this includes missing out on time with family and friends in order to ensure that patients and the community are safe,” said Joshua Mansour, an oncologist and hematologist in Los Angeles.

He asked that “even if you don’t believe in the seriousness of what is going on, please don’t make light of the situation.”

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