Picture: 123RF/LIGHTWISE
Picture: 123RF/LIGHTWISE

SA’s cumulative Covid-19 cases have just passed 683,000, a small fraction of the more than 35-million cases worldwide but enough to put our country’s health-care system under severe strain.

Lockdown has also put strain on a  struggling economy, which is likely to shrink more than the initial forecast of 7.2% this year, the biggest recorded  reduction in 90 years.

As the country gets back to work and rebuilding, frontline medical workers are still working under conditions of great stress and uncertainty. By analysing data from the EMGuidance platform, which is used by more than 25,000 health-care professionals — half of all registered doctors — countrywide, we can gain insight into some trends and challenges faced by frontline medical staff.

Health-care professionals use the platform to access treatment protocols, medicine guidelines, research, news and the latest medical advice and knowledge about health-care matters, including Covid-19, and connect to industry bodies and pharmaceutical companies in an open exchange of information.

Based on user data over the past few months, it is clear that the pandemic has taken a deep emotional and mental toll. In an effort to support health-care professionals as they dealt with a dramatic rise in coronavirus cases, a mental health support channel was introduced in May after a partnership with the SA Society of Psychiatrists, the SA Medical Association, the Psychological Society of SA and the SA Depression and Anxiety Group.

This channel was accessed more than 44,000 times by Gauteng-based medical professionals in May alone, and 46,000 times more in June. In the Western Cape, one of the country’s hardest-hit provinces, medical professionals sought support via the mental health support channel more than 25,000 times in May and more than 26,000 times in July.

SA’s health-care professionals are battling a pandemic of misinformation as the internet and social media give formerly fringe theories mainstream attention

To better understand how the pandemic has affected the mental and emotional state of frontline health-care practitioners we conducted a survey of more than 3,000 of our users in July. Based on the results of this survey the past few months took — and continue to take — a heavy toll on their mental and emotional wellbeing.

The reasons for this are unsurprising: the survey found that doctors and nurses were worried about testing positive for the virus and putting their families at risk, and about not having access to enough personal protective equipment (PPE). In June alone our platform experienced more than 84,000 queries over PPE in Gauteng alone, when the pandemic started peaking in that province. Health-care professionals also reported taking strain from dealing with the uncertainty of a disease we’re still only beginning to understand.

What did surprise was the extent to which misinformation is adding to our health-care practitioners’ fear and anxiety. SA’s health-care professionals are battling a pandemic of misinformation as the internet and social media give formerly fringe theories mainstream attention. While medical professionals were quick to denounce the drinking of disinfectant as a treatment for the disease after even some political leaders suggested it as a possible cure, the extent to which misinformation has flourished means many people still believe this — and other unproven, dangerous treatments — to be a viable option.

Some doctors also said they were spending undue time combating misinformation, including that masks cause hypoxia, and have to deal with — and often treat — members of the public who had used remedies they found on the internet for “curing” Covid-19 that ended up making them sicker. This revealed how dangerous it is to make important health decisions using inaccurate, false or misleading information. All good decisions — especially medical decisions — are made using accurate, trustworthy and science-based information and data.

At the point of care, trusted information saves lives. Health-care professionals need information tools that optimise their medicine prescriptions and clinical practice, specifically in the context of their region. The better the information they can access the better care can be provided to sick patients. Misinformation holds only danger and risk, and can worsen difficult conditions and add to the strain on our health system.

As SA continues its positive steps towards reducing infection rates and containing the spread of the virus, health-care professionals continue to work in conditions of immense stress. It is vital that we ensure they and the public have accurate information on which they can make important decisions on their health and the health of others.

• Dr Khan is CEO at EMGuidance.

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