A doctor in residence at Children’s National Hospital is expected to care for 20 to 22 patients at a time. (Courtesy Photo)

By Megan Sayles, AFRO Business Writer,
Report for America Corps Member,
msayles@afro.com

Doctors in residence and fellows at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C. are in the midst of a critical negotiation with their employer. 

The doctors, represented by the Committee of Interns and Residents, recently held a Unity Break to call attention to their struggle to obtain a contract that allows them to sufficiently care for their young patients, while also nurturing their own mental health and well-being. 

“I’m just hopeful that the demonstration showed us as residents that we are stronger when we stand together and that there are a lot of us in this fight together,” said Taliaferro. “Then, hopefully, it can be a demonstration as well to the hospital that we are committed to making sure that the kids of D.C. get what they need by making sure that we can get what we need to provide them with excellent care.”

Children’s hospitals across the country have been faced with historically high patient surges, while also coping with healthcare workforce shortages, according to a spokesperson from Children’s National Hospital. Some have even closed their pediatric inpatient beds and intensive care beds. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, children remained at home, and hospitals saw respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) rates drop. This year, however, RSV came earlier, and hospitals are seeing higher numbers of RSV infection, according to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases

Taliaferro, a third year resident of the Pediatric Residency Program at Children’s National Hospital, has witnessed the stress this surge has caused in their co-residents. 

Although the hospital includes patient caps in its residency program protocol, the limits are not codified in their contracts, and with the rise in patients, the caps are not always satisfied. 

This forces residents to take on more strenuous patient loads, and sometimes call on their colleagues to come in to offset the strain. 

Currently, Taliaferro said one doctor in residence is expected to care for 20 to 22 patients at a time on the Hematology and Oncology Service each night. In the NICU, one resident works overnight and can care for up to 36 babies. 

Not only are the physicians undergoing the physical toll of working 60 to 80 hours a week and pulling 24-hour shifts, their mental health is also taking a hit. 

“It’s that literal physical burden but then the emotional burden of wanting to provide kids and families with the care they deserve, no matter what that requires of you and no matter how stretched thin you are,” said Taliaferro. “Without opportunities to replenish yourself you continue to pour and pour until you’re pouring from an empty glass, and at that point, what happens?” 

At this point, the Committee of Interns and Residents is asking Children’s National Hospital to pay a salary that keeps pace with rising inflation, incorporate patient caps in all residents’ contracts and institute a mental health package for residents. 

Currently, the hospital does offer a few options for employees to access mental health treatment, including the Employee Assistance Program, but Taliaferro said most residents have to wait months for an appointment. 

The hospital recently presented residents with a new mental health package, but there is still negotiation to be done regarding residents’ salaries and patient caps. 

A spokesperson from Children’s National Hospital said they remain hopeful that the surge in respiratory infections will diminish to former records to reduce some of the pressure residents are under.

“We are proud of the benefits package offered to our residents, which includes paid sick leave and access to free and confidential mental health care outside of what is available through the resident’s health insurance,” said a spokesperson from Children’s National Hospital. “We have made much progress at the negotiating table, and we hope they focus on working to finalize the contract.”

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