Stress Abounds for Locum Tenens Physicians in COVID-19 Fight

As if the nonstop COVID-19 news cycle isn’t enough to send anxiety levels off the charts, many pandemic-related headlines seem almost designed to strike fear: “‘Terrified’ Package Delivery Employees Are Going to Work Sick,” “NY Governor: Virus Spreading Like a ‘Slow-Moving Hurricane’,” “New York City Sets Up 45 New Mobile Morgues.”

Fortunately, physicians and other healthcare workers on the “front lines” in the battle against the coronavirus don’t have much time for news consumption. They’re dealing with realities like too many patients for a given space, finding enough PPE to protect themselves adequately, or having enough staff support to handle the case volume of the moment. There’s also stress from the increased infection risk they bring home to family members from work.

Locum Tenens Physicians Add Care Capacity — at a Cost

Why would any locum tenens physician or other supplemental medical professional sign up for a locum tenens job at a time like this? Likely the same altruism that makes most physicians go into medicine has much to do with it — especially during the kind of healthcare crisis the country hasn’t seen in over 100 years. Hot spots for the pandemic like New York City and New Orleans have asked for extra healthcare workers. Most locum tenens agencies are well-equipped to respond quickly and are doing so.

Then there’s the financial component: locum tenens physicians often earn more per hour than the staff physicians they are filling in for or working with. This is partly because they’ve often traveled to the assignment, they’re living in temporary quarters away from friends and family, and they have to quickly adapt to unfamiliar work environments and cultures on every assignment.

In situations like COVID-19 has presented, patient care alone is stressful enough. The additional psychological toll on locum providers due to these extenuating factors should not go unnoticed despite the ongoing crisis affecting healthcare systems.

Medical Pros Mistreated

“Grueling” is how resident emergency physician Omar Maniya, MD, MBA, described the scene at his New York City hospital the night before (his fifth in a row) to an American Medical Association (AMA) online interviewer on Tuesday, April 7. Maniya, who had recovered from COVID-19 four weeks ago himself, said that in light of “a parking lot full of stretchers” outside, hospital staff fit 85 stretchers into a section of the ER equipped for 15.

As if the long hours of trying to save victims and the growing death toll weren’t enough to bring exhausted doctors and nurses to tears, some medical professionals are experiencing discrimination and even attacks.

“In Mexico, Colombia, India, the Philippines, Australia and other countries, people terrified by the highly infectious virus are lashing out at medical professionals — kicking them off buses, evicting them from apartments, even dousing them with water mixed with chlorine,” according to the Washington Post.

While the harassment isn’t widespread, it’s apparently been enough for Mexico to arrange special buses for nurses and for some areas of Australia to discourage nurses from wearing uniforms in public. Fears of catching COVID-19 prompted neighbors of a government-hospital psychiatrist in India to try and keep the physician from entering her own apartment building.

“It’s enough to drive a saint crazy,” as the old saying goes. Of course, front-line healthcare workers aren’t the only ones whose mental health is threatened by this coronavirus pandemic. With stay-at-home orders in place in all but 9 US states (as of Friday, April 3), and with government officials asking that all nonessential procedures and medical appointments be postponed, physicians across the country are experiencing the financial stress of lost income and closed practices.

“For those still in business, the prospect of little to no revenue for months on end is terrifying,” according to a recent CNBC report. “And the lifelines that are available now will likely be primarily directed to the larger hospitals that are being hit hardest by the pandemic.”

A week ago the AMA announced resources available to help physicians cope with increased levels of distress and anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic. We will address those, and other, resources to help physicians cope with the stress and anxiety of COVID-19 in our next post.