The second year of the COVID-19 pandemic saw periods of dire healthcare resource limitations in the U.S., sometimes prompting official declarations of crisis, but little is known about how these conditions were experienced by frontline clinicians.
The findings of this qualitative study by Butler, et al. (2023) suggest that institutional plans to protect frontline clinicians from the responsibility for allocating scarce resources may be unworkable, especially in a state of chronic crisis. Efforts are needed to directly integrate frontline clinicians into institutional emergency responses and support them in ways that reflect the complex and dynamic realities of healthcare resource limitation.
This qualitative inductive thematic analysis was based on interviews with physicians and nurses providing direct patient care at US health care institutions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Interviews were conducted between Dec. 28, 2020, and Dec. 9, 2021.
Interviews with 23 clinicians (21 physicians and 2 nurses) who were practicing in California, Idaho, Minnesota, or Texas were included. Of the 23 total participants, 21 responded to a background survey to assess participant demographics; among these individuals, the mean (SD) age was 49 (7.3) years, 12 (57.1%) were men, and 18 (85.7%) self-identified as White. Three themes emerged in qualitative analysis. The first theme describes isolation. Clinicians had a limited view on what was happening outside their immediate practice setting and perceived a disconnect between official messaging about crisis conditions and their own experience. In the absence of overarching system-level support, responsibility for making challenging decisions about how to adapt practices and allocate resources often fell to frontline clinicians. The second theme describes in-the-moment decision-making. Formal crisis declarations did little to guide how resources were allocated in clinical practice. Clinicians adapted practice by drawing on their clinical judgment but described feeling ill equipped to handle some of the operationally and ethically complex situations that fell to them. The third theme describes waning motivation. As the pandemic persisted, the strong sense of mission, duty, and purpose that had fueled extraordinary efforts earlier in the pandemic was eroded by unsatisfying clinical roles, misalignment between clinicians’ own values and institutional goals, more distant relationships with patients, and moral distress.
The findings of this qualitative study suggest that institutional plans to protect frontline clinicians from the responsibility for allocating scarce resources may be unworkable, especially in a state of chronic crisis. Efforts are needed to directly integrate frontline clinicians into institutional emergency responses and support them in ways that reflect the complex and dynamic realities of healthcare resource limitation.
Reference: Butler CR, et al. Experiences of US Clinicians Contending With Health Care Resource Scarcity During the COVID-19 Pandemic, December 2020 to December 2021. JAMA Netw Open. 2023;6(6):e2318810. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2023.18810