Put your oxygen mask on first

“In the event of a loss of cabin pressure, be sure to put your oxygen mask on first before assisting others.”

You’ve heard some variation of these words if you’ve flown on a plane. It basically means you need to take care of yourself first before you can help anyone, or you’ll be of no help to anyone.

Yet it’s a concept that, unfortunately, is a challenge for providers and caregivers in health care. Many are working longer hours and have greater workloads. The increasing demands of increasing chronic conditions, the aging population and demands on daily lifestyle are making it harder for us to take care of ourselves.

When employees find that they are faced with new responsibilities of providing care to a family member or friend, things just get tougher. And with 10,000 baby boomers every day turning 65 and inching toward retirement, the American workforce is going to have its lack of time challenged even more by caregiving.

A second job

According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, “34.2 million Americans have provided unpaid care to an adult age 50 or older in the last 12 months. And this recent article — “America Is Running Out of Family Caregivers, Just When It Needs Them Most” – details the challenges of the people who need care:

•   “Their (Americans reaching retirement) median incomes, including Social Security and retirement fund receipts, haven’t risen in years. They have high average debt, some incurred from taking care of their own aging parents. And if they’re counting on family to care for them, too, they may well find their families too small and far-flung to meet the task.”

Similarly, there is another group that is critical in addressing caregiving: the physicians and clinicians who deliver clinical aspects of care.

And are they putting their own oxygen masks on first?

Physicians and clinicians need more help

According to a recent study of nurses, “nearly all respondents (92 percent) had moderate, high or very high levels of work-related stress” and “69 percent of respondents reported no regular exercise.” On the physician front, it’s even more alarming. One study found that 90 percent of physicians were not willing to recommend their profession in health care.

The frustration and struggles voiced by physicians and clinicians could not come at a tougher time. Given the large number of people entering retirement, we simply won’t have enough physicians and clinicians to meet the needs of the exploding boomer population, within current care models. Even with promising technology and new care settings like in the home, covering the expected shortages of clinical talent will be a real stretch.

Physicians and clinicians are already struggling, and they need support now. And the first steps can be taken with employers.

Employers in the health and well-being space can help create a more positive future for physicians and clinicians. For example, at my company Humana, we’re focusing on building a culture where our physicians and clinicians can thrive – personally and professionally. We want to fully empower their efforts to have successful careers, make an impact in the lives of those served, and truly be supported in their own health and well-being journeys.

Today, we directly employ or have received direct support from approximately 8,200 clinicians (e.g., physicians, nurses and other clinical positions) who serve our 3.5 million Medicare Advantage members and others.

We also just finalized an ownership stake in Kindred at Home and Curo Health, who also employ thousands of nurses. Over the next few years, we expect clinical talent like physicians, nurses and pharmacists to become a very significant portion of our workforce.

Moving in the right direction

Employers like us who envision a renewed, world-class experience for clinical caregivers need to make it easier for physicians and clinicians to do their important work. Guided by listening and learning from the front lines, we’re focused on simplifying workflows and a new generation of care technology. Things that make it easier to provide care and clinical expertise also decrease added stress and help clinicians better fulfill their personal purpose: helping people. Professional growth opportunities that develop newly evolving skill sets and broaden learning are also helping prepare the workforce for the needs of the future.

The oxygen mask starts, however, with helping clinicians improve their own personal health and well-being. The American Heart Association has recognized our efforts in that area, and bestowed upon us the Workplace Health Achievement Index gold award. According to the AHA, our performance was assessed on the basis of evidence-based strategies and scientifically validated measures of health among 200 clinical companies and roughly 1,000 others.

Yet despite the success we have achieved this early in the game, we know it will take years to reach our goal. We also need to pay special attention to the roles that employees play as family caregivers. As an example, we’ve recently provided an additional benefit of two weeks of paid caregiver leave to our associates, and formed a network resource group where family caregivers can connect and share mutual support. It’s not easy for anyone to navigate today’s complex, disconnected health care system, especially given the lack of time and resources they have when it comes to their full-time jobs.

We’re at a critical time in health care. Everything must not rest solely on the backs of physicians and clinicians; employers need to ensure that their cultures support clinical talent where applicable and support employees who are called on to provide care. For the U.S. to retain its competitive advantage, we need to support and strengthen those who care for our loved ones.


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