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Some years ago, a psychiatrist named Wendy Dean read an article about a physician 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 startled Dean, who was then working as an administrator at a U.S. Army medical research center in Maryland. Dean started asking the physicians 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 bemoaned having to fight with insurers about whether a person with a serious illness would be preapproved for medication.
The doctors Dean surveyed were deeply committed to the medical profession. But many of them were frustrated and unhappy, she sensed, not because they were burned out from working too hard but because the health care system made it so difficult to care for their patients.
By the time the journalist Eyal Press met Dean, the distress among medical professionals had reached alarming levels. Professional organizations like National Nurses United, the largest group of registered nurses in the country, had begun referring to “moral injury” and “moral distress” in pamphlets and news releases. Mona Masood, a psychiatrist who established a support line for doctors shortly after the coronavirus pandemic began, recalls being struck by how clinicians reacted when she mentioned the term. “I remember all these physicians were like, Wow, that is 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.