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Keeping Your Cool When Patients Don't Take COVID Precautions Seriously


Are you tired? Stressed out? Burned out? Overwhelmed? It's been a tough year for everyone, but healthcare providers are among the groups that have really borne the brunt of the pandemic. Longer shifts, higher census counts, more precautions, illness among staff, changing expectations—it's been a lot. So when patients don't take COVID precautions seriously, it can be enough to push us over the edge.

We've all been there at some point over the last nine months, caring for a patient who questions:

  • The legitimacy, reality, or severity of COVID
  • The national, state, or local response to the crisis
  • The need for their own wearing of masks
  • The need for your wearing of masks
  • The need to take their temperature, meet via telehealth, be tested for COVID, not congregate in the waiting room, sign extra informed-consent paperwork, et al.

There's just so much. And after a long year, it can be tough to keep your cool when you have to ask someone—yet again—to please wear their mask properly.

So what can you do to prevent an explosion of anger, tears, or worse?

Strategies for Keeping Your Cool

Take some time for self-care, even if you don't think you need it. Watching your favorite reality show, getting a pedicure, treating yourself to a specialty coffee drink, listening to a funny podcast, taking a walk, chatting with a friend or co-worker—these are all easy, doable ways to take care of yourself. But don't wait until you are desperate! Build in at least a few of these each week. Even a five-minute break can make a big difference.

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Memorize a script. One of the things that can cause increased stress in situations like this is having to think about how to respond. What should I say? What shouldn't I say? What if they get mad? In order to navigate these conversations with as little drama as possible, make sure you know how your employer would like you to respond. Is there a script you can follow? Can you make your own script? Here's mine:

"You and I are both required to wear masks when we are together. I have to comply with this requirement in order to maintain my license. If that's uncomfortable for you, I am happy to meet with you via telehealth or refer you to a different provider."

When we memorize a few statements and know our next steps if the patient is not compliant, we can help take the emotions (anger, anxiety, fear, nervousness) out of the situation.

Incorporate de-briefing into your shifts. De-briefings are helpful because they provide a structured time to discuss things that happened (good or bad) during the workday. They can involve other people (co-workers, colleagues) or can happen alone. Perhaps you take a few minutes on the drive home to "de-brief" on your own. Or you can write it in a journal, or say it out loud in the shower. The point is, you make space after each shift to download what happened. Avoiding keeping it bottled up, only to explode at a later date.

Don't take it personally. You might be the person hearing the anger, confusion, and fear from your patients. But it's important to remember that it's not about you. It's about the state of the world, our country, and its leadership. It's about the fear inherent in a pandemic. It's about their own feelings of helplessness and lack of control. It's about all the unknowns of this world. It's not personal, even if it feels that way.

We will get through this. There is light at the end of the tunnel. Even if we can't tell how bright it is and when it will surround us fully, it is there. Go easy on yourself as you make your way back to "normalcy." It will come, and your burdens will ease with time. Hang in there.

Article Originally Published on ACOG Career Connection