SMA: Physicians experiencing ‘a sense of loss for everything they knew’ due to COVID-19 pandemic

Pictured is Prince Albert's Victoria Hospital. (Herald file photo)

The Saskatchewan Medical Association (SMA) says physicians and resident doctors will be most in need of emotional supports once the COVID-19 pandemic simmers down.

Brenda Senger, director of the SMA’s Physician Support Programs, said doctors and other health care workers may be feeling anticipatory anxiety—fearing or worrying that bad things are going to happen.

“You’re standing in the parking lot waiting for the ambulances to arrive—and waiting, and waiting. Dealing with uncertainty is very uncomfortable for those used to being in control and ‘doing,’” said Senger.

“The health system is not operating as it used to, as it normally did,” she added.

“Right now there is a sense of loss for everything they knew.”

While they understand the pandemic is temporary, said Senger, physicians also know that their workplaces and lives will permanently change. She said it’s easy to get lost in worse-case scenarios, even though these frontline workers are trained to act in the moment.

“They will put on protective armour to cope with the emotional impact,” said Senger.

“Physicians are used to working long hours under stresses most people don’t endure. They will have to make decisions on people’s health that could be life or death, or could affect the long-term health of their patients.”

Senger encouraged physicians to take responsibility of the problems at hand right now for increased sense of control. 

She said following the pandemic, physicians will have time to reflect on their emotions, which will likely be the time of the most distress and when they’ll need support.

“They may be traumatized by ethical decisions they had to make during the busiest stages of the pandemic. Upon reflection they may look back and question their decisions—and themselves. They will be tired and emotionally drained.”

Doctor-led response team provides supports for frontline health care workers

A provincial working group is providing supports to frontline health care workers through its COVID-19 Pandemic Mental Health and Wellness Response Team.

Dr. Alana Holt, a psychiatrist and co-lead of psychiatry response teams for COVID-19 care providers, said there’s help available at all levels of need. These include education, online resources, debriefing sessions, counselling and psychiatric care.

“We know that there will be a continuum of responses from expected transitory distress to potentially serious mental distress or illness including acute stress reactions, PTSD, depression and anxiety,” she said.

Holt is the Saskatoon and north psychiatry lead for physician response teams. She and Dr. Andriyka Papish, the Regina and south psychiatry lead, have been working with a number of physicians on the response team.

Holt has been involved with the SMA’s Physician Health Program for 12 years. She’s been treating physicians and doing presentations on physicians wellness and resiliency.

“There has been an incredible pulling together of many physician and health care groups to devise a pandemic plan that will allow our teams to support and treat patients of Saskatchewan and each other,” said Holt. 

“The courage, connection, and compassion with each other, within our teams and for our patients will help us navigate this pandemic with strength and growth.”

Senger said the SMA opened an office on Apr. 6 in Regina. The program was previously based only in Saskatoon.

Physicians can contact Jessica Richardson, a social worker and the new clinical coordinator in the Physician Health Program’s Regina office, at 306-359-2750 or jessica.richardson@sma.sk.ca.

Last year, the program supported nearly 350 people.

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