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The long-term impact of pandemics on healthcare workers

Blog Author Victoria Collin

Blog Date 09/10/2020

​Research Analyst Victoria Collin discusses the psychological impact of pandemics on healthcare workers and why it is essential that we prepare for long-lasting consequences.

 

Dentist and dental nurse wearing PPE

 

Many studies have highlighted the detrimental impact that pandemics have on the mental wellbeing of health care professionals. Research from previous pandemics has shown that feelings of isolation, loss of control, lack of support or protection can affect the mental health of healthcare workers. Unfortunately, most of these points were also cited by dentists when asked about the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

We must be aware of the psychological impact this pandemic may have on dentists and understand that there may be long-term implications.  As a research analyst at the BDA, I have been part of an evidence-gathering team focused on the experience and wellbeing of dentists during lockdown. This research is on-going, but I want to take this opportunity to highlight some of our findings.

 

What emerges most clearly from the data and from our research into previous pandemics is that the mental impact of the COVID-19 pandemic may be felt at any time - not just when it seems likely, such as during lockdown.

 

Impact of lockdown on dentists

The UK-wide lockdown that took place from March to June of this year challenged the professional lives of healthcare workers in unprecedented ways. Dentists had to rapidly to adapt to working remotely or to redeployment, adjusting to new settings and unfamiliar styles of working. They had to rely on rotas and accept reduced hours all of which culminated in deep levels of anxiety: “The uncertainty, loss of income... and difficult working conditions in the future is worrying.”

 

The most common response from dentists during this time related to financial concerns. This was stressed by Highstreet practices - with mixed and private practices expressing fears about the future of their business. This anxiety was enhanced by the overall uncertainty surrounding the pandemic. “Private dentistry seems to be overlooked compared to NHS. This has been incredibly stressful and I wonder if the practice will be financially viable.”

 

However, it’s reassuring to note that some of the dentists we spoke to were focusing on the positive aspects. For some, lockdown offered time away from the day-to-day stressors of performing clinical dentistry. For others it was the sense that they were helping in the fight against the pandemic: As one dentists redeployed to an urgent dental centre told us: “As a health care professional it would very hard to sit back whilst others are doing their best as many practitioners have had to do.”

 

Although some of the immediate concerns expressed by dentists have been alleviated with the reopening of the profession to routine care, there are still many challenges ahead. It is important not to overlook the impact that this period has had and will have will have on dentist’s well-being and mental health.

 

Psychological impact of pandemic outbreaks

A recent rapid review looking into the psychological impact of pandemic outbreaks on healthcare workers reported that significant levels of burnout (emotional exhaustion) and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder were found two-three years after the SARS outbreak in 2003.

 

It has been proposed that during the pandemic healthcare workers often adopt a mentality of ‘getting on with the job,’ which may help to minimise psychological stress. It is only after the immediate threat has dissipated that the effects will manifest.

 

What this may mean for dentists

We know from our previous research that dentists face many stressors in their work, including threats of complaints, dissatisfied patients, risk of making mistakes and running behind schedule.

 

We also know that patient demand may have has increased due to lockdown. With current restrictions reducing practice capacity, these stressors will likely be exacerbated. Dentists will potentially have to work longer hours to get their patients seen while being burdened by enhanced PPE. This is a serious concern as we know that levels of stress and burnout in the profession were already high prior to the pandemic. 

Historical evidence tells us that the pandemic may have long-term consequences on mental wellbeing, therefore it is important that mental health monitoring and support is available for all dentists.

 

Support is available

If you’re struggling, please do look into what resources are available to you. If you’re a BDA member, Health assured offers a 24/7 helpline 365 days of the year. Dentists in England can contact prac.health@nhs.net. And any dentist in the UK that needs emotional support, can reach out to the Dentists' Health Support Trust. Your mental health and wellbeing matters, and we urge anyone who is struggling to please seek support.