Post-Covid pandemic of loneliness among healthcare professionals needs attention | SCMP
In more ways than one, the Covid-19 pandemic has specifically affected healthcare professionals.
They have suffered greater rates of infection compared to the general population. The pandemic has also intensified healthcare professionals’ burnout, leading many to switch jobs. What has been somewhat neglected is that the pandemic has further pushed them into the depths of loneliness.
Medicine has long been a solitary profession. Healthcare professionals become socially isolated because of their busy schedule and recurrent feelings of estrangement from non-medical professionals. They become lonely when they lose their intimate partner due to disease or because of their career choice.
They become lonely when they alone must negotiate the terms between patients and the healthcare system, often denying patients their wishes. Lastly, they become lonely when they are left without faith and without any medical solutions to patients’ and families’ suffering and pain.
We know of a young physician in Israel who feels her clinical practice distances her from the people she loves. We know of a Hong Kong-based clinician in his early 70s who has exhibited extreme social isolation and withdrawal after being infected with Covid-19 himself.
We know of other physicians who have even committed, or attempted to commit, suicide because of their loneliness, and potentially undiagnosed depression.
Healthcare professionals may indeed be the worst patients, particularly when it comes to loneliness. While caring for others is our job and calling, it may easily substitute self-care. The worse one feels about one’s personal life, the more enticing it is to focus on one’s patients as an escape.
This may create a vicious cycle where healthcare professionals become increasingly dependent on their career for personal well-being and sense of fulfilment. Furthermore, the more engaged we become in our clinical environment the harder it may become to disconnect from the medical world and reconnect with the non-medical world.
This may mean reduced resilience in coping with life challenges, and increased risk of burnout, loneliness and depression.
Medical schools should emphasise instilling resilience in addition to, or rather than, studiousness in students. Society should realise that in the post-Covid world, medicine is in crisis, and resilience is key.
The next time you see your doctor, tell them whether you are lonely, and ask whether they feel lonely as well.
Dr Zohar Lederman, Post-doctoral Fellow, Medical Ethics and Humanities Unit, School of Clinical Medicine, LKS Faculty of Medicine, The University of Hong Kong
Dr Robert Yuen Kar-ngai, Associate director, Bioethics Resource Centre, Holy Spirit Seminary College