November 8, 2021

There’s no question COVID-19 has up-leveled physician stress and burnout — which you know all too well was already a challenge for medical professionals. Quarantines. Increased patient loads. Staff absences and shortages. Fear of exposure. Supply anxiety. New PPE protocols. Vaccinations and vaccination status concerns. Decreased practice revenue and increased costs. Patient fear. Misinformation. Telehealth visits and their related technology demands. Delayed patient health screenings and treatment.  

The list goes on. And that’s all on top of issues already facing physicians and PAs every day before the pandemic.

We’ve all felt it.  We’ve all worried about this.  And we will all need to come together to approach and help solve these issues!

The results from the American Medical Association’s 2020-21 “Coping with COVID-19 for Caregivers Survey” paint a troubling picture for physicians, nurses and other medical professionals:

  • 6 out of 10 reported high fear of COVID-19 exposure for themselves and their families
  • 50% reported symptoms of burnout — including 16% who indicated their symptoms were persistent
  • Over 3 in 10 reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression as a result of COVID-19

While nearly half of the survey respondents indicated being part of the COVID-19 response has increased their sense of meaning and purpose, that bright spot just isn’t enough to counterbalance the stress, anxiety, and increasingly real risk of burnout faced by physicians, PAs, and other members of the healthcare team.

So, what’s the solution? One part of reducing the impacts of COVID-19 stress and anxiety is self-care, and right now it’s mission-critical for us and other healthcare professionals.  Look into this today!

What is Self-care?

Self-care is the modern buzzword encompassing both ongoing and episodic self-help, wellness and coping mechanisms that empower you to live a healthier, more productive life.

The World Health Organization defines self-care as a broad concept, specifically “the ability of individuals, families and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and to cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a healthcare provider.”

What does self-care mean for physicians and PAs? It means taking care of yourself so you can take care of others. The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) likens self-care to putting an in-flight oxygen mask on yourself first, so you can then help others.

Let’s look at how you can put self-care into practice.

Self-care for Physicians and PAs

How can you address your self-care needs?

One great place to start is with MSV’s own confidential clinician well-being program, SafeHavenTM, which is focused on addressing and maintaining the mental health and well-being of clinicians. Its customized services for healthcare professionals include 24/7 professional support, time-of-need counseling, and peer coaching for everything from stress and burnout to workplace anxiety to developing healthy habits.

You can also try stress first aid for medical professionals. It’s the framework for identifying stress injury — including irritability, decreased impulse control and withdrawal from friends and family — removing a stressor, preventing further harm, and promoting recovery.

In fact, the AMA recently published an entire article focused on how physicians can cope with COVID-19: “With pandemic’s end not in sight, 8 ways to deal with the stress” that’s well worth checking out.

Taking time for yourself is another top recommendation for physician and PA self-care, especially now during the pandemic. It can include everything from using your vacation days to practicing yoga to getting in touch with your creative side through art or music. This can feel like an impossible task with our current workloads, but it is so critical that we all find a way, even if it’s just for 5 minutes a day.  Schedule this time if it helps you.  Don’t schedule it if that feels more spontaneous.  But make yourself accountable.  Recruit friends and family to let you know how you are doing at finding time for yourself!

Finally, the American Psychological Association recommends several self-care strategies for healthcare providers during COVID-19, including maintaining good health habits in areas like diet and sleep, getting regular aerobic exercise, and just taking the time to breathe — literally by pausing to take deep breaths several times a day.

Whether you add breathing, exercise and other healthy habits to your daily routines, or you seek assistance from professional resources that can help you mitigate your stress and anxiety, the important thing is to take action now. 

There is strength in deciding to care for yourself.  It’s the right thing to do for yourself, those you love and your own patients.  It is the greatest gift you give others.


Art P. Saavedra, MD, PhD, MBA, FAAD
UVA School of Medicine
Chief of Population Health & Health Policy