Heroes: The word we use to keep health-care professionals complacent

We are not heroes – we are just people trying to do our best in our jobs despite the stones thrown at us.

Healthy Debate 3 minute read November 24, 2021
Medicine - Comic book style text.

The normalization of physicians as ever-perfect mediators of emotions makes it difficult for HCPs to express emotions with patients. GETTY

By: Katie van Kampen

Humans, when faced with adversity and challenge, look to leaders for guidance. From the glorification of soldiers in wars to the reverence for relief teams in natural disasters, people cling to a hope in our heroes.

During this pandemic, doctors and nurses have been lifted onto pedestals. War-inspired metaphors and similarities to dramatic relief efforts seem to fit right into this immunological battle.

And while health-care professionals (HCPs) have always been upheld as symbols of altruism, the pandemic has magnified this perception. However, there is a danger labelling HCPs as heroes – it separates us from the rest of the society as almost superhuman, always putting others above ourselves.

The othering of physicians has impacts that stretch beyond the pandemic. For example, the normalization of physicians as ever-perfect mediators of emotions makes it difficult for HCPs to express emotions with patients. This results in them losing touch with emotions and becoming desensitized to difficult situations. This withdrawal and the pressure of “being strong” can be detrimental as repressing emotions can have psychological consequences and impair relationships with patients.

HCPs are uniquely positioned to recognize the dangers of heroism. It is a privilege to see patients from the beginning to the end of their lives and to intervene to improve quality of life. The gratitude of being a physician, however, should never intervene with physicians’ abilities to advocate for themselves. This “othering” that heroizes HCPs is what keeps them complacent when work environments are less than ideal and their own wellness suffers. The pressure HCPs may feel to “stay strong” can have a detrimental impact on their work as they experience burnout and compassion fatigue.

This has been especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic. More and more doctors are working forced overtime and working outside of their scope which is detrimental to themselves, nurses and patients. Hospitals failed to provide proper PPE for workers in the early stages of the pandemic. The compliance that heroism inspires is the greatest flaw in the praise of our HCPs. We cannot simply call them heroes and post signs without recognizing that they are also humans whose lives deserve to be protected.

Most recently, aggressive protesting outside of hospitals has made going to work even more difficult as HCPs are forced to face verbal harassment. Add in changing media messages and ever more conspiracy theorists who undermine the good HCPs have done during the pandemic. From heroes to villains in less than a year, the emotional fatigue in HCPs is palpable.

It is no wonder that there is a massive exodus of HCPs in Ontario – and shortages are forcing those still on the frontlines to work even harder. The battle is not just one against COVID-19 but against the people HCP are meant to take care of.

The othering of HCPs directly inhibits the public from empathizing with the people they expect to save them. The praise blinds people to the difficulties HCPs face because it’s become an expectation for them to rise above the odds and be triumphant. HCPs are expected to turn the other cheek in the face of verbal harassment and poor working conditions because we are too altruistic to let it phase us. Yet, it does.

HCPs will always appreciate the gratitude you show us. That is something we need to hear, especially now as doctors have faced legitimate death threats. Just as we advocate for our patients, remember that HCPs deserve the same respect and empathy as anyone else.

We are not heroes – we are just people trying to do our best in our jobs despite the stones thrown at us. The danger comes when heroization keeps HCPs complacent despite the stacked battle ahead of them.

Katie van Kampen is a medical student at McMaster University, interested in MedEd and the intersection of health and humanities.