I am compelled to reach out to you after several weeks of troubling conversations among physicians in communities across our state.
Right now, I know many of us are experiencing a new phenomenon: compassion fatigue. After 18 months of pandemic life, each of us—and the individuals and families we serve—are weary of highly politicized conversations about masking, vaccines, variants, and surges.
Even worse, those of us who serve as local public health officials in our own communities are exhausted by the constant, ongoing need to defend our choices against the personal attacks of local leaders, neighbors, and even our own friends and family members.
Indeed, this is work that sometimes feels thankless, or worse.
The purpose of this letter is to offer encouragement, support, and resources to you as you continue to do right for your patients and communities. We all are heading into a new phase of the pandemic, with shorter days and colder temperatures signaling the onset of cold, flu, and COVID season here in our state. Students and educators are back in school, with varying masking and vaccination requirements in place—all of which seem to be controversial, for one reason or another.
RELIABLE, CONSISTENT, EMPATHETIC EDUCATION
To us, it seems simple. Wear your mask. Keep your distance. Get the vaccine. But for many of our patients, it’s not that straightforward. If we are to protect our populations, we must continue to educate others about what it takes to stay safe, even when our messages seem to be falling on deaf ears.
When historians look back at the COVID-19 public health crisis, it is likely they’ll point to massive communication failures as part of the challenge. Unfortunately, continually changing recommendations, such as when to wear masks, have caused confusion and given us little to hold onto when we’re trying to make effective decisions for our communities. Undoubtedly this has added to our own feelings of anxiety and burnout.
We can, however, take our work to the next level—and feel better about it—when we convey reliable, consistent information with empathy and thoughtfulness. Effective communication also can help community members receive your information in ways that are far more positive. This will ultimately add to individual and community well-being and ensure the effectiveness of your work.
Here are two effective communication toolkits from AAFP and the Centers for Disease Control and and Prevention:
Many of you feel like you are at the end of your ropes, having been working to treat and prevent COVID-19 for 18 months without relief. Here are some pointers from your (equally weary) colleagues across the U.S.:
Monitor your well-being. Compassion fatigue causes emotional and physical symptoms, ranging from irritability and anxiety to insomnia, weight fluctuations, and even substance abuse. If you’re beginning to observe some of these challenges in your own life, it’s time to ask for help.
Make a plan and ask for what you need. Share your struggle with a close friend, colleague, or therapist. Write down some self-care strategies to soothe your nerves when they’re at their most frazzled. This seems obvious, but most of us tend to forget these critical steps when we’ve hit our wall.
Focus on what you can control. Sometimes we need to offer our compassion to someone who can receive it willingly, without fear or judgment. Whether it’s a local charity or an act of kindness for a neighbor, this counterintuitive action step can help you fill your own cup when needed.
You can also obtain valuable resources to help you assess, advance, and prioritize your own well-being by checking out the AAFP’s Physician Health First toolkit.
But more than anything, what you most need to hear from me today is this: you are doing a good job. You are making the best decisions you can for your patients and your community, using the current information you have at your disposal. You are encouraging well-being even when people are trying to work against you.
Is it perfect? Of course not. But in the midst of a pandemic, politics, and public health, few things are going to be. Know that your Academy is cheering you on and ready to provide you with the resources and support you need. Call on us anytime.
Srikar Reddy, MD, FAAFP
President, Michigan Academy of Family Physicians