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Pediatric critical care physician worries about pandemic’s impact on workforce

March 1, 2022

Editor's note: As the COVID-19 pandemic enters its third year, Benson S. Hsu, M.D., M.B.A., FAAP, is one of six pediatricians reflecting on what keeps him going, the lessons he's learned along the way and he hopes for the future. To read all six reflections, click here.

Benson S. Hsu, M.D., M.B.A., FAAP, has seen the best and the worst of people come out over the past two years.

He has been disheartened by the way his public health colleagues have been treated and how they have been limited in what they could do to fight the pandemic.

Yet, he’s also seen his pediatric critical care colleagues rise to myriad challenges. Early in the pandemic, they cared for adult patients. They’ve navigated shortages of supplies and resources. And during the omicron surge, they have picked up extra shifts to cover for those who’ve gotten COVID.

“I've never been more proud of my critical care colleagues — nursing staff, ancillary staff, our chief, respiratory therapists, physicians — in the way that they've stood up, in the way that they responded to the call, in the way that they care for their communities, despite overwhelming odds,” said Dr. Hsu, a pediatric critical care physician at Sanford Children's Hospital in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Since Sanford is a smaller hospital, the staff has been able to develop close relationships.

“We watch out for each other. We lift each other up when others are down,” he said.

Dr. Hsu felt that support firsthand when he recently lost a patient to COVID-19. “I had every single partner reach out to me within 24 hours to make sure that everything was OK.”

Still, he wonders how long they can go on, especially the frontline staff. He also worries about how the pandemic will impact the workforce.

“When COVID hit the adult population more than pediatrics, a lot of my nurses went over to the adult world. So I'll be honest that they lifted way more than I have, and the burnout that I see on their faces is something that's very worrisome to me,” he said. “How do we keep their energy going? How do we keep them aligned to the mission in light of everything that they're facing? It's been hard.”

As for himself, he finds support from members of the AAP Section on Critical Care.

“I think the AAP and my role in the Section on Critical Care has been very beneficial — to know that others are going through the same thing, to learn from others, to lean on others, to talk it out with providers within my group and across the U.S. when bad things happen. And to know that I'm not alone,” said Dr. Hsu, who chairs the section’s executive committee.

Time with his family also helps him decompress. His wife is an adult infectious disease doctor, but they try not to talk about work when they’re together.

“I think everybody has to find their own outlet. And for me, it's family and the community,” he said. 

As he looks ahead, Dr. Hsu said he hopes the pandemic will put a focus on the importance of public health and how to devote resources to keep people healthy.

“The goal isn't to just fix patients after they get sick,” he said, “but to prevent them from getting sick, and I'm saying that as an ICU doc. I would like to see less patients.”

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