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[Interview] Coping with COVID-19, Clarissa Barnes, MD

Mar 26, 2020 07:00AM ● By MED Magazine

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve, healthcare workers are on the front lines of the battle against it. Clarissa Barnes, MD, is an Internist and hospitalist at Avera McKennan and medical director of Avera’s Light Program, which addresses things like physician stress and burnout. We spoke with her in mid-March on how the crisis is impacting people working in medicine in our area. 

MED: We still have only a handful of COVID-19 cases in our area right now. Have you felt any effects yet?

CB: In some ways, things are clearly happening already. I’ve had partners come back from travelling and be told they can’t work for 14 days. So some of us are already taking on extra shifts. In other ways, it really does feel like the bigger impact is still coming. 

MED: How do you cope with that knowledge that things are likely to get a lot worse before they get better?

CB: I think we are all doing what we need to do to prepare mentally. There are a lot of online groups for doctors so many of us are talking to physicians in other markets, getting a sense of what they are seeing and how they are handling it. There is a lot of sharing happening with now.

MED: Do you think it creates or alleviates stress to hear about what is happening in other markets?

CB: As medical director for Light, physician stress is part of my job. I do think there are physicians who have worsening stress right now, especially those who had more stress at baseline. But, in general, I think it helps to know what to expect. It is not the patient care aspect that drives us crazy. It is all the other stuff, the unknowns and the logistics. But taking care of patients is aligned with our jobs. This is what we do and, in many ways, it is mentally recentering to focus on that. 

MED: Have you ever been through a stressful situation like this before?

CB: When I was a senior resident at Johns Hopkins, one of our surgeons was shot. It feels like that. We didn’t panic. We knew we just had to get the work done. I’m always amazed at how focused and calm physicians and other healthcare workers are when things are in a bad place. Even when things seem chaotic, people tend to get really focused. I haven’t gotten many questions from people worried about their own health.

MED: Why do you think that is? After all, physicians are human.

CB: I think there is a sense that this is what we trained for. We have always known that something like this could happen. And physicians in general have a better understanding than the general public of what this could look like. As physicians, we are inherently more comfortable with levels of uncertainty than other people are. A lot of decisions we make every day have a level of uncertainty about them. This level of discomfort is not unusual.

That said, it is important to remember that confidential services are available if you do start to feel overwhelmed. If you are wondering if you need some help, the answer is probably yes.