How coronavirus post-traumatic stress could be affecting NHS staff in six to 12 months

"I think with hindsight if we had initiated a lockdown sooner than we did, we would have had fewer c

"I think with hindsight if we had initiated a lockdown sooner than we did, we would have had fewer cases than we did, the peak wouldnt have been as high," says the Hornchurch GP. Picture: Ben Molyneux - Credit: Ben Molyneux

A Hornchurch GP opens up about how burnout is taking its toll on NHS staff wellbeing.

Working in healthcare has never been an easy job and now more than ever, the British Medical Association (BMA) says healthcare workers are in need of a long-term strategy to protect emotional wellbeing.

A recent BMA survey found that 48 per cent of doctors in London reported suffering from work-related anxiety, burnout and depression and 35pc of these say this has worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Hornchurch Medical Centre GP Dr Ben Molneux explains: “In addition to worrying about your own and your family’s health, you’re also worrying about your patient’s health and if the system is going to manage this adequately.”

From March until four weeks ago, it was very busy in east London, having had an earlier peak than in other parts of the country.

“Quite early on we were feeling the pressure of the number of local cases, patients admitted, patients dying, not knowing enough about the disease, what the symptoms are, effective treatment, how to assess patients appropriately. We were having to learn rapidly from any source we could, what the best way of managing this was.

“All that comes with an emotional toll at the end of the day because you have to take that uncertainty home, and you don’t know, or didn’t know, at the time: ‘Was that the right decision? Should I have admitted that patient, did I do the right thing? Was that medicine the right thing to use?’”

Most Read

Dr Molyneux has also been working in “hot hubs”, facilities set up to diagnose patients before admission to take the pressure off the hospital.

He said: “As someone who works in general practice and A&E, I’m quite used to seeing different cases and working out the best option, but this was another level because actually nobody knew and there wasn’t anybody to ask. That is quite difficult and doesn’t sit easily with a lot of doctors and other healthcare workers, because we like to have a framework to work within. So it was quite a novel experience.

“I think a lot of the emotional burden from this for healthcare workers is going to come out in the next six, 12 to 18 months because people are still in the thick of it.

“They’re still managing that really difficult bit and you don’t have time to reflect and worry in a way that you might do later on. There definitely have been days when I’ve thought I don’t know how long we could do this for.”

Although infection rates have plateaued, with the pressure eased, Ben says intensive care units are still a very difficult place to be.

“For a lot of my peers in intensive care units who don’t normally do that but have been redeployed into intensive care or Covid wards, they’ve seen a lot of people die in a very short period.

“Even when you are accustomed to that, the scale of it has probably left a lot of people with ongoing stress that they’re going to have to manage.”

In a paper by the BMA on May 20, the association called for more support for doctors suffering with poor mental health and wellbeing. Previous BMA research found that one in five doctors feel they do not have access to the help that they need.

The association says a long-term strategy that protects and maintains the physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing of the workforce must be a top priority for the NHS, lasting beyond any interim Covid-19 support.

Dr Molyneux added: “I think there is going to be a post-traumatic stress element for some of these people. Ultimately doctors are people too and you need to look after yourself before you can look after other people.

“For some they have been putting other people first at the cost to themselves and that was the right thing to do because there’s a national emergency and we had to do it. But I do think that in the next few months people are going to have to take some time to look after themselves. Most people are resilient and will bounce back from it but some people might find it quite difficult.”