This post is the second of a series on medical lessons learned from movies. Doctor Strange, a 2016 Marvel Comics superhero film, featuring British actor Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular character, is a mile-a-minute cosmic thrill ride that fans of the comic series most certainly enjoyed.

Cumberbatch plays Dr. Stephen Strange, a gifted, yet self-absorbed, arrogant neurosurgeon who, following a car crash, loses the use of his hands. For Dr. Strange, the accident rings a death knell for his career, so he travels to the Himalayas to visit an eastern mystic (the “Ancient One” or “Sorcerer Supreme”) in search of a miracle cure.

Finding a cure is crucial to Strange, for several reasons: His hands were the foundational piece of his practice; they sustained him through long workdays and provided the means through which, in his mind, he could change the world for thousands. 

All at once, that was taken away, and the next few scenes show Strange grappling with the fact that his hands will never be the same — and it becomes painfully clear that brutal depression and loss are setting in.

Physicians may not relate to the personality and attitude that Dr. Strange exemplified or the car accident experience that he had, but they can empathize with the feelings of loss, depression, and pain that he faced as he realized the change to his medical career the traumatic event caused.

We’ve discussed provider trauma and burnout on the SCP blog before, but in light of this year’s pandemic, the current hurricane season in the southern U.S., the ongoing racial injustice throughout the country, and the countless smaller-scale challenges that happen every day at our hospitals nationwide, it’s a topic worth revisiting.

For many providers, their empathy for others and purpose to help heal the world, one life at a time,  is why they entered medicine in the first place.

As the physical, emotional, and psychological exhaustion of the death of patients, fear for their safety, hits from the media, and added administrative weight all swarm around them, it can feel like their foundation is crumbling. The reason they go to work is slipping away, and the “world-changing vision” is now just the memory of a dream.

As the film progresses, we see countless others — fellow clinicians, the Ancient One, and other mystics — all trying to help Strange, even though he continually pushed them away. (Later on in the film, the doctor he pushed away most was the one who helped keep him alive.)

There’s a lesson there for hospital leaders and clinicians: Don’t give up on those who are struggling.

The wounds many clinicians endure are more psychological and emotional than physical, so it is even more important to continue supporting them. Use these eight ideas to jumpstart the process: 

Help them tap back into their “why.”

Strange got into medicine to help people but got lost along the way amid pressures and big goals. Going through trauma ultimately helped him reset his priorities and focus once again on the greater good. Difficult experiences don’t need to crush doctors, but it often takes hard work and strong support to help them grow, learn, and re-center as a result of hard times.

Emphasize mental health as much as physical.

Consider making mental health checks a more regular part of work-life for clinicians (virtual capabilities can make this type of thing simpler).

Block meeting times or set specific meetings to discuss well-being efforts and results.

Amid a slew of meetings around productivity, budgets, technology, and other topics, show clinicians that their well-being matters most.

Support providers in establishing work-life balance.

Work-life balance means different things to different people, so help providers find the best fit for their individual situation. (Also, help them understand why sleep can be their best friend.)

Adjust staffing and schedules when possible.

The AMA emphasizes the importance of adjusting staff schedules from higher-stress to lower-stress functions when possible and implementing flexible schedules for workers who are directly impacted or have a family member impacted by the outbreak. It also recommends partnering inexperienced workers with more experienced colleagues, who can provide support, monitor stress, and reinforce safety practices.

Discuss the challenges caused by trauma.

Discuss the challenges faced by clinicians who are experiencing emotional, physical, and psychological trauma (they are rarely disconnected). No two people communicate their traumatic experiences in the same way, however, so take an individualized approach to support.

Be on the lookout for PTSD.

It would not be unusual or surprising to find many clinicians facing trauma right now, but some could also suffer from PTSD. Unlike stress or trauma, which can be short-lived, PTSD can worsen over time and have a greater impact on the person’s psyche. 

Prepare for disaster before it happens.

The current pandemic is just one of the many disasters that hospitals face. Acts of God, such as hurricanes or tornadoes, mass shootings, and other man-made catastrophes are, unfortunately, not uncommon.

Prepare in advance by conducting disaster planning drills. Not only can this help save lives, but it also gives your team the confidence needed to respond quickly and skillfully no matter what calamity befalls.

Conclusion

Dr. Strange’s struggle with the loss of what enabled him to fulfill what he felt was his purpose — saving thousands of lives — led him on a search to find a cure. In the end, by depending on others, he found another way to accomplish the same goal.

Like Strange, doctors are called to a noble profession — to make a difference in the lives of others and do so on a regular basis.

Yet, during times of crisis, physicians may struggle with the loss of physical, emotional, or psychological strength that keeps them from fulfilling their purpose, which makes the support of hospital leadership — administrators, medical directors, and other clinicians — more critical.  

Learn more about the struggles SCP Health providers are facing—and how they are overcoming. Read our three-part series “Healing Warriors: Stories from the Front Lines of COVID-19.”

Lastly, if you’re interested in learning how SCP Health has been supporting our clinicians’ health and well-being throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, contact us to get details on our Employee Assistance Program. This benefit includes counseling and legal services, help with family matters like child and elder care, guidance for finances and budgeting, and more.