Imaging technologists are on the front lines of healthcare every day, taking care of patients at a critical junction in their lives. No one comes for a CT or MR or US just for fun. They are often scared, waiting for the results of the exam, hoping the doctor’s suspicions are wrong. Sometimes the exam confirms their worst fears. Occasionally the results reveal an “incidental finding” – a brand new issue that neither they nor their physicians anticipated. It is a privilege we embrace, and a responsibility we take very seriously. But performing the exam is only one part of an imager’s role. Taking care of people at a time of uncertainty is the other large, often overlooked part of an imaging professional’s role in the care continuum. Patients are scared, sick, injured and often stressed, and they instinctively want to connect to us as part of their care team. For patients managing a chronic illness, frequent visits to the imaging department means we get to know them over time. We laugh with them, cry with them, listen to their fears. It is a unique bond, unlike any other in healthcare, and one that we cherish.
The other side of this coin, however, is that imagers are deeply affected by our patients. We are sad with them, happy with them, fearful for them. While genuine empathy is part of our role that we embrace, the effects of internalizing a patient’s emotions takes a toll on any given day.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made this exponentially worse.
Imagers are often the first line in diagnosis – we perform exams to confirm or rule out diseases routinely. Imaging exams cannot be performed without intimate direct contact for often prolonged periods of time. But the unknowns around COVID-19 transmission, the lack of a proven treatment, the lack of PPE and accurate testing, and the loss of tight camaraderie in a “socially distanced” workspace that relies heavily on human interaction has upended the emotional apple cart. Performing exams and being present for our patients while worrying if you are endangering your family when you go home, if you will be furloughed, if you yourself will become ill – all of these legitimate stressors send imagers into the same category as any front line worker in this crisis: at serious risk for intense, long-lasting mental health challenges. The research is clear – but line of sight to the imaging team and their unique challenges is often not.
This mental health month, I urge you to keep a clear line of sight to the imaging team. Working in the “background” does not usually bother us much. In these times, imagers who need extra support are likely hiding in plain sight.