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Roth Lecture looked back at the pandemic’s impact on health care to inspire future lessons

Warren Ng, M.D., psychiatry professor at Columbia University Medical Center, delivered this year’s Roth Lecture.

As the pandemic slowly recedes in the United States and the nation winds its way to a new normal, it's important to reflect on the impact the crisis had on health care professionals and find key lessons and new ideas the medical field can carry forward.

That was a major theme of this year's Roth Lecture, delivered virtually June 8 by noted psychiatrist Warren Ng, M.D., to faculty, staff, trainees and guests of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

Ng is a professor in the Department of Psychiatry, medical director of outpatient behavioral health and director of clinical services at Columbia University Medical Center and NewYork-Presbyterian/Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital in New York.

"It's an absolute privilege and pleasure to be able to contribute to the department with this lecture, as it gives us an opportunity as a department as well as the community to think back on how can we deliver care in a way that is most meaningful for the community that we're serving, whether or not that's employing all the strategies of telepsychiatry or learning our meaning to one another in terms of health care provider well-being and promoting resilience," Ng said in remarks following the lecture.

Ng also used the annual lectureship to highlight the importance of mental health providers within the broader field of medicine, the unique perspectives they offered during the unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic and the opportunity the crisis presented for them to both learn from and help their peers in the medical field.

Heavy toll

In talking about the impact of the pandemic on the medical field, Ng said the crisis severely strained both the health care system and its workers, including those in mental and behavioral health, at the time when there were already high levels of burnout, depression and suicide. The tidal wave of social and racial unrest the nation continues to experience has created additional stress for providers, and especially those of color.

Ng cited sobering research in which health care providers reported experiencing symptoms such as acute stress, depression, anxiety and insomnia during the pandemic. Providers also reported the crisis has negatively affected their physical well-being, use of substance and alcohol, and feelings of burn out.

"We've definitely seen the important intersection of health and mental health during this period of time. If there's one thing that COVID-19 revealed more than anything else, it was also really the impact on our mental health and well-being of not only the pandemic, but also social isolation, as well as some of the ramifications of that whole pandemic experience," he said.

Lasting consequences

Ng also noted a 2021 Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation study that surveyed about 1,300 health care providers with 62 percent of respondents indicating the pandemic has had a negative impact on their mental health. Yet, Ng noted, there is still a stigma attached to seeking mental health care, particularly among medical professionals.

"The COVID-19 pandemic revealed an experience that we've been seeing overall in healthcare in terms of burnout, mental health issues and suicide. These are not new issues. They have only been compounded by this additional pandemic disaster response," he said. "As leaders within our field, institutions and teams, one of things we can do to evolve from this experience and take meaning out of all of the loss and challenges of the past year is to consider how can we make things better. Implementing even small things into our schedule or routine would be very meaningful."

Hope for the future

Ng also shared the success of CopeColumbia, a broad, evidence-based initiative launched at Columbia University Medical Center during the pandemic to foster well-being, resiliency, coping strategies and peer support for faculty and staff. Led by a multidisciplinary team of providers at the medical center, including mental and behavioral health experts, the effort included team sessions, peer support groups, town halls, webinars and a website to disseminate information and support resources.

Ultimately, Ng hopes the medical field will be able to incorporate important lessons learned over the course of the pandemic.

"It's always how do we move beyond, learn from our experiences, and evolve to be our best selves. That really is the responsibility of all of us collectively," he said. "Each one of us contributes to that effort, and to contribute, really, within our teams, communities and departments, some of the lessons that we've learned, and what commitments we want to make to ourselves as well as each other."

Words of encouragement

The Roth Lecture is named after the department's first chair, William Roth, and is held annually as part of the department's graduation recognition activities. In recognizing the occasion, Ng shared some words of encouragement to graduates entering the field, including the importance of finding mentors to support their continued professional and personal growth and development.

"I would encourage them to keep their eye on what's most important, which is the meaning, the value, the mission, the why are you doing this, and how you do it. Be flexible in terms of finding ways to provide the care that can hopefully increase access and equity, as well as address some of these disparities. Also, in the context of what we do every day, make sure there's an element of self-care and reflection. That's definitely one way to maintain and ensure some sustainability for our young professionals going into this work, because we want to learn from the lessons of the past," he said.

Ng is a child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist. His special interests include HIV, public psychiatry and family issues. He is president-elect of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and serves on the American Psychiatric Association's Assembly as well as its Council on Children, Adolescents and Families.

Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

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