June 15, 2024

Vitavo Yage

Best Health Creates a Happy Life

Healthcare workers in Singapore talk about the emotional struggle during the COVID-19 pandemic

5 min read
President Tharman Shanmugaratnam with some of the award winners at the Healthcare Humanity Awards.

President Tharman Shanmugaratnam with some of the award winners at the Healthcare Humanity Awards. (PHOTO: MOH Holdings)

SINGAPORE — Healthcare workers have been “unwavering pillars of strength” in Singapore’s society, President Tharman Shanmugaratnam said on Thursday (12 October) as he and Minister for Health, Ong Ye Kung, presented the Healthcare Humanity Awards (HHA) to 95 individuals and teams in the healthcare sector.

The HHA, which started in 2004 (a year after the SARS crisis) and stems from 2003’s Courage Awards, aims to honour the efforts of healthcare workers in Singapore. This year’s new Team Category also saw 10 specialised groups that contributed to the fight against COVID-19 among the 25 winning teams.

President Tharman called the award recipients an “inspiration for us all”.

Indeed, healthcare has been one of the industries that has recently been in the spotlight, not just as an inspiration, but also as more light is shed on the challenges faced by those in the sector.

For example, a survey reported by the Academy of Medicine Singapore in May revealed certain trends in the mental health of healthcare workers.

The findings highlighted a notable surge in job burnout, with rates reaching 39 per cent in 2021, compared to 25 per cent in 2020. Anxiety and depression also increased to 18 per cent and 16 per cent from 14 per cent and 12 per cent respectively.

HHA recipients who spoke with Yahoo Southeast Asia shared how they and their teams managed some of the struggles faced by those in the healthcare sector.

Unseen struggles of healthcare workers

Dr Shawn Vasoo, a clinical director at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases, was honoured by HHA for his dedication and innovative approach to patient care, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Amid the surge in COVID-19 cases, with thousands reported daily, Dr Vasoo acknowledged the emotional burden on healthcare professionals.

He said, “It was a highly stressful time for patients and families – hard to be in isolation, and heart-wrenching to die alone.” Despite being stretched, the healthcare workers soldiered on, he added.

President Tharman Shanmugaratnam with Dr Shawn Vasoo, clinical director at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases. President Tharman Shanmugaratnam with Dr Shawn Vasoo, clinical director at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases.

President Tharman Shanmugaratnam with Dr Shawn Vasoo, clinical director at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases. (PHOTO: MOH Holdings)

Dr Vasoo and his team developed a “CAVES” system to help decide how to care for COVID-19 patients at home in Singapore. This system made it easier to determine who might need extra care, like oxygen or intensive treatment, and who wouldn’t.

Dr Vasoo also highlighted the steps taken to support the mental well-being of his healthcare team, emphasising that they listened to staff and took their feedback seriously.

They adapted workflows, schedules, and staffing to provide the best possible resources for their work and also adjusted leave policies to ensure that staff could take breaks when needed.

In a specific instance, Dr Vasoo recounted, “I heard from a medical social worker colleague regarding a junior doctor who said he was ‘numb’ after a night on call, where he had to care for many sick patients with COVID-19 who succumbed that night to their illness. I asked to speak to him after a few days to check in on how he was doing.”

To help young doctors deal with the emotional impact of the pandemic, he and his teams also introduced “care-giving rounds.”

These were voluntary sessions where junior and senior doctors came together to share and discuss their experiences and thoughts about patient care during the pandemic.

Supporting migrant workers amid the pandemic

Dr Louisa Sun, a 38-year-old consultant at Alexandra Hospital and another award winner, assumed the role of lead infectious diseases clinician just six months into her job when COVID-19 struck Singapore.

She played a role in managing COVID-19 cases at the hospital and helped alleviate fear and anxiety among dormitory-based migrant workers.

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung congratulates Dr Louisa Sun Jin and fellow award recipients.Health Minister Ong Ye Kung congratulates Dr Louisa Sun Jin and fellow award recipients.

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung congratulates Dr Louisa Sun Jin and fellow award recipients. (PHOTO: MOH Holdings)

Going the extra mile, she and her team also created multilingual materials, including audio recordings and printed booklets in seven languages like Tamil and Thai, to impart information about COVID-19 to the workers.

Dr Sun expressed her commitment to providing not only basic medical care, but also comfort, stating, “It was almost like a natural progression, taking on one role after another, completing one activity after another—all aimed at helping the migrant worker brothers who were fearful, and had no idea what was going on.”

When asked if she felt any pressure or stress due to her responsibilities, she mentioned, “I didn’t actively stop to think about what was happening or how much I was taking on. Instead, it was about identifying what still needed to be done, how I could contribute, and what my team and I could achieve together.”

Unmasking the emotional toll on nurses

In response to the surge in COVID-19 cases, Laura Ho, Deputy Director of Nursing at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) and a member of the Covid Task Force at the hospital also played a crucial role in adapting hospital facilities.

She worked with her team and several departments, overseeing the conversion of two floors of TTSH’s general wards into COVID-19 care areas. This effort added 230 beds for COVID-19 patients and 36 beds specifically for intensive care.

Laura Ho Pei Wah, Deputy Director of Nursing at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) and a key member of the TTSH ABCD COVID Force, spearheaded the transformation of hospital facilities to meet the rising demand during the COVID-19 surge.Laura Ho Pei Wah, Deputy Director of Nursing at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) and a key member of the TTSH ABCD COVID Force, spearheaded the transformation of hospital facilities to meet the rising demand during the COVID-19 surge.

Laura Ho Pei Wah, Deputy Director of Nursing at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) and a key member of the TTSH ABCD COVID Force, spearheaded the transformation of hospital facilities to meet the rising demand during the COVID-19 surge. (PHOTO: TTSH/FB)

Acknowledging the difficulties her team faced in quarantine and isolation due to their close contact with COVID-19 patients, she introduced digital engagement sessions to ensure they stayed connected and preserved their mental well-being.

Ho shared her approach, saying, “We made a point where we have a daily Zoom (session) with them, where my boss, three of my nursing directors, and I would join.”

The 51-year-old emphasised the importance of maintaining this human connection during that period, recounting “heart-wrenching moments”, such as a nurse breaking down on Mother’s Day due to separation from her baby.

Beyond this incident, she acknowledged that stress wasn’t always evident for many nurses during the pandemic’s peak; they were focused on getting the job done. However, it became apparent afterwards.

Furthermore, Ho stressed the need and commitment to support and uplift nurses’ morale.

She explained, “We conduct a monthly forum where nurses have the opportunity to voice their concerns. For example, if a sister feels overwhelmed by her workload, she can request a process review. We highly value their input and actively work on areas that can be improved.”

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