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A few years ago, a psychiatrist named Wendy Dean read an article about a doctor who died by suicide. Such deaths were distressingly common, she discovered. The suicide rate among doctors appeared to be even higher than the rate among active military members, a notion that appalled Dean, who was then working as an administrator at a US Army medical research center in Maryland. Dean began asking the doctors she knew how they felt about their jobs, and many of them confided that they were struggling. Some complained that they didn’t have enough time to talk to their patients because they were too busy filling out electronic medical records. Others lamented having to fight with insurers over whether a person with a serious illness would be pre-approved for a drug.
The doctors Dean surveyed were deeply committed to the medical profession. But many of them were frustrated and unhappy, she felt, not because they were exhausted from too much work but because the health care system made it difficult to care for their patients.
By the time the Eyal Press journalist met Dean, the distress among medical professionals had reached alarming levels. Professional organizations such as National Nurses United, the largest group of registered nurses in the country, began to refer to “moral injury” and “moral distress” in pamphlets and news articles. Mona Masood, a psychiatrist who established a support line for doctors shortly after the coronavirus pandemic began, remembers being struck by how clinicians reacted when she mentioned the term. “I remember all these doctors being like, Wow, that’s what I was looking for,” she says. “This is it.”
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Additional production for The Sunday Read was contributed by Isabella Anderson, Anna Diamond, Sarah Diamond, Elena Hecht, Emma Kehlbeck, Tanya Pérez, and Krish Seenivasan.