Battle buddies: New U of M program helping health care workers on front lines deal with COVID-19 stress

A new program through the University of Minnesota is helping doctors and nurses on the front lines deal with the stress of COVID-19 by giving them a "battle buddy."

"The battle buddy program is a well-known Department of Defense peer support program," said Colonel Brian McGlinch.

McGlinch served 28 years in the Army Reserves and worked as a hospital commander in Ohio. He is now an assistant professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Anesthesiology.

Dr. McGlinch and his colleagues at the University of Minnesota Medical School recently helped develop the Minnesota Resilience Action Plan, known as MinnRAP, to address some of the mental health issues of health care workers during the pandemic. He said doctors and nurses have been seeing extreme cases of COVID-19, dealing with shortages of personal protective equipment and worrying about bringing the virus home to their own families.

"The level of anxiety is similar, almost identical, to what people in combat experience," Dr. McGlinch said. "It was amazing how similar the behaviors were, the concerns were."

They rolled out the battle buddies program in March, pairing two or more workers together, so they have people to check-in with over the phone, in-person or via text.

Dr. McGlinch said simply talking about the stress they are experiencing helps people cope.

"Our intent was that, if you’re feeling anxious, you can talk to somebody at work that understands. ‘This is crazy. Are you afraid? Yes, I’m afraid,’" Dr. McGlinch explained. "You can be honest with yourself and you can speak openly about your anxieties, which is a different culture than most of us have in our clinical practices."

"One of the things we also know about health care workers is they oftentimes don’t have these conversations with each other and may not know how to start these conversations. They may not feel comfortable expressing a situation where they’re having some doubt or expressing a weakness," added Dr. Jeff Wozniak, the director of the Behavioral Sciences Division at the University of Minnesota.

Dr. Wozniak is coordinating the mental health side of the program and the support systems behind it.

"We’re really advising people not to think about this as a heavy type of experience," Dr. Wozniak explained. "They’re not doing therapy with each other. They’re not there to be each other’s significant support system but they’re there to be a connection point."

A recent study about mental health outcomes of health care professionals in China found those treating COVID-19 patients were 52% more likely to have symptoms of depression, 57% more likely to have symptoms of anxiety, 60% more likely to experience distress and almost three times as likely to have insomnia than those who were not on the front lines.

"Even just by talking about that and realizing that’s true for everybody gives us the strength to say, ‘Okay, this what we have to do now, so we’ll do that and carry on,’" said Barbara Gold, a professor of anesthesiology and chief clinical risk officer at U of M Physicians. "If we are able to take care of one another, we are better able to take care of our patients."

More than 1,000 employees across the hospital system are participating.

"The key element," noted Dr. McGlinch, "is that no one gets left behind."