An Open Letter To Physicians: Looking After Your Own Heart Health During the COVID Pandemic

By Lori Sedrak, D.O – Texas Radiology Associates

February is Heart Awareness month. Let’s take a moment and have a serious talk. Let’s talk about Valentine’s Day and have a heart-to-heart talk about your heart health and how COVID-19 burnout impacts your health. Remember to love your heart before showering others with love on Valentine’s Day.

Physician burnout has always been present, but the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated burnout among physicians and other healthcare workers.

Dr. Lori Sedrak

Dr. Lori Sedrak

A recent article published in the Annals of Internal Medicine highlighted physician burnout in the COVID-19 pandemic world. We are entering the second year of the COVID pandemic. While there are now two approved vaccines that give us hope that an end to the pandemic is achievable, we have a long road ahead of us.

We are reminded of the advice from Randy Pausch in The Last Lecture — “Put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.”  Simply put, we can’t look after others if we don’t take care of ourselves first. Physicians must be healthy — physically, mentally, and emotionally.

How Serious is the Problem

While every community is different, the challenges are similar for physicians everywhere.

  • Adequate supplies of PPE
  • Work schedules versus the high patient workload
  • Social stigma from the community
  • Frustration over lack of treatment options
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Isolation from family

Surges in patient loads and the unpredictability of staffing continue to exacerbate hospital staff. As new variants emerge, we may be asking ourselves, “How much more?”

Medscape recently released their National Physician Burnout and Suicide Report 2021. Here’s what the report shows:

  • Over 40% of physicians report burnout, specifically adversely affecting their happiness as a physician.
  • Burnout is higher among female physicians — probably, in part, due to their family duties at home, especially if they have school-age children at home.
  • 21% of physicians report that their burnout didn’t occur until the pandemic.
  • Only 49% of physicians now feel happy compared to 69% in 2019.

Physicians should not feel guilty over the need for self-care. Self-care is neither a sign of weakness nor self-serving. Self-care is essential — self-care is the responsible and ethical response to continue to provide the highest-quality care for our patients.

We must remember that even physicians who are not on the front lines have experienced increased stress too. Surgeries canceled and diagnostic images delayed continue to frustrate physicians caring for patients suffering from non-COVID medical emergencies.

How can we begin to take care of ourselves?

One of the first steps that physicians must take is to acknowledge that physicians must practice self-compassion. Self-compassion is the acknowledgment that we must be looking after ourselves first to care for others. We must be healthy, mentally alert, physically fit, and emotionally stable so that we can care for others.

Small behavior changes are how we start. Simple, informal, or impromptu behavior changes will make a big difference. Try these ideas, but don’t feel guilty.

  • Rent a movie that you’ve always wanted to see.
  • Indulge in a nice meal — whether you or a loved one prepares it, or it’s take-out.
  • Spurge in an extra hour or two of sleep.
  • Spend extra time in a warm shower.
  • Take your children to the park.
  • Take a walk, even if it’s for 10 minutes outside the hospital.
  • Don’t forget for the power of deep breathing.

Tips for Living a Heart-Healthy Life amid a Pandemic

You may be thinking, “I don’t have time to exercise or prepare a healthy meal.” But, the fact is that simple changes made over a long time yield big results, especially in our heart health. These suggestions are attainable and sustainable.

  • Eat just one extra serving of fruit or vegetables every day. Bring an apple or banana to work, or order an extra veggie at the hospital cafeteria.
  • Eat a healthy breakfast. Start your day off with a nutritious breakfast that includes whole grains. There are plenty of choices from whole grain bread for toast, whole grain cereals, or oatmeal.
  • Eat nuts for snacks. Eat nuts instead of chips or cookies as a snack. Walnuts and almonds are especially heart-healthy.
  • Walk outside for just 10 minutes every day. Instead of sitting down in a corner during your break, take a brisk 10-minute walk outside. Fresh air and sunshine do wonders for your heart and your mood.
  • Do bicep curls. Keep a 5-lb. weight in your locker or desk drawer. A few bicep curls every day will help keep your arm muscles strong.
  • Cut out sugary sodas and lattes. Swap out hot tea, coffee, or water for those sugary drinks to help maintain lower blood sugar levels and lose a few pounds.
  • Substitute fish and poultry for red meats. Limit red meat consumption to 18-oz. per week. Remember that red meats include beef, pork, and lamb. Eating fish like salmon that are high in Omega-3 fatty acids is a heart-healthy substitute.
  • Limit salt intake. Help reduce the risk of high blood pressure by reducing your salt consumption. Processed meats and many restaurant and cafeteria meals are high in salt content.
  • Brush and floss your teeth regularly. People with periodontal disease experience 2-to-3 times the risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • Have an annual physical. It’s easy to get caught up in your patients’ problems and forget to have a physical exam for yourself. Keep track of your vital signs like blood pressure and cholesterol.
  • Reduce stress. Stress reduction is easier said than done when you’re in the midst of a pandemic. Deep breathing, yoga, meditation, or simply sitting for 10 minutes with your eyes closed will help reduce stress.

February is a good month for us to remember the words of Bill Swiggart, “Physicians have ‘Permission to be human!'”

About Author:

Lori Sedrak, D.O. is a Board Certified, Fellowship Trained Radiologist. Dr. Sedrak completed medical school at The University of North Texas Health Science Center and her radiology residency at The University of Texas Medical Schoolin Houston. Dr. Sedrak also completed her fellowship in Vascular and Interventional Radiology at The University of Texas MD Anderson Center. Dr. Sedrak specializes in cardiac CT angiography and prostate MRI.