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How Personal Protection Extends Beyond a Mask

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The onset of COVID-19 has highlighted the need to quickly and efficiently protect providers on the frontlines. Although safety and wellbeing are an ever-present challenge, protecting physicians has become a glaringly obvious concern during the global pandemic. Luckily, both the scientific and industrial communities agree that elementary safety measures and appropriate PPE drastically reduce infection — and thus mortality — rates.

But what happens when that first line of defense, physical PPE, fails? What are the prescribed elements of a comprehensive risk mitigation plan to protect that same provider — a beloved family member, a financial pillar to the household, a key stakeholder in a lifelong plan — if the occupational risk of simply being on the frontlines interrupts that person’s path? Simply put: how can a physician plan for personal protection in an uncertain world? PPE for physicians should encompass both physical and financial protections in order to create the desired outcome for the physician’s (and their family’s) future.

As of June 27, 2020, 10.16% of all positive COVID-19 cases in Minnesota were health care workers. Globally, the occupational risk of being on the frontlines has grown so large, Kaiser Health Network and The Guardian have partnered to track those “Lost on the Frontline,” which currently lists more than 700 health care workers felled by COVID-19. Although the pandemic is both a current and dramatic example of the constant risk when providing care, COVID-19 also highlights the intensification of the stress involved with the job. Inevitably, insurance industries — key players when building well-rounded and healthy financial plans — also had to adapt. “We are seeing life insurance carriers tighten up their underwriting in response to the COVID-19 risk,” Jennifer Fitzgerald, CEO of Policygenius, said during an interview with McKinsey during April 2020. “[W]e have seen the highest levels of consumer search traffic ever for life insurance specifically…[w]hile the biggest surge we’ve seen has been for term life insurance, this pattern has extended to other product lines. Demand for disability insurance has [also] increased.”

Many providers are trained in medical school and residency programs that disability and life insurance are both important tools when building a healthy financial plan. However, strapped with some of the heaviest student loan burdens of all professions, many in medicine struggle to balance paying down debt while both protecting and building for the future. According to the AAMC, 75% of 2017 medical students graduated with an average student debt balance of over $170,000, and that number continues to balloon. Not surprisingly, physician depression, suicide, and burnout rates also continue to increase, which only compounds the problem. When researched by the Mayo Clinic and the American Medical Association between 2011 and 2014, physician burnout symptoms increased by nearly 20%, satisfaction with work-life balance dropped 15%, and physicians reporting suicidal thoughts jumped an alarming 80% overall.

If the reality for physicians has become more compressed – more debt, more occupational risk, more documented impacts of stress – how does one manage or even attempt to control the outcome? Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, this perceived loss of control and autonomy has echoed across society and the globe. Luckily, the answer is clear: to no longer take a passive approach to the future, move forward with active inquisitiveness, decisiveness, and professional guidance. Not any different than how a care plan is developed for a sick patient, a physician on the frontlines must pursue the following towards a healthier future:

  • Get clarity around the desired outcome. If you contract COVID-19, how will you avoid physically infecting others? Financially, would your disability insurance cover an extended departure from the workforce so that the lifestyle of those impacted remains consistent? A common issue is the definition of disability: would full benefits pay if a surgeon could teach but not perform surgeries, thus affecting reimbursement rates? If the worst were to happen, is the right life insurance policy able to pay off the remaining student loans, credit cards, or mortgage debts, as well as appropriately providing for the dreams of the future? In short: what is the end goal?
  • Know your options. No medical professional would ever sanction "winging it" as the prescribed way to diagnose or to build recommendations; the same is true of financial professionals. Use data, historical context, and accredited opinions to create an action plan. Understand what resources are readily available to you — through your employer, alumni associations, respected peer recommendations, etc. — in order to identify and act upon clear next steps towards protecting your financial future.
  • Construct your team with the right professionals. Successful physicians would not hesitate to consult a trusted colleague in another specialty for which they have little training in order to care for a complex patient. In the same manner, physicians need to value their own time by choosing specialized support to best protect and maintain financial wellness. Interview a variety of financial professionals to find the right advocate for you. There is no legal definition of a financial advisor, but the AAMC suggests choosing a certified financial planner, or CFP, to help guide these decisions.

PPE is due to evolve, just as the definition of wellness continues to expand. Safety is no longer specific only to physical conditions. In today’s world, it is imperative for physicians to both actively understand and to act upon a more well-rounded definition of PPE to ensure that they are pursuing — and protecting — their desired future. The career path of a physician is one with high up-front costs: the literal cost of tuition, time spend in school, and years perfecting care in training. It also has exceptional potential for a high return on investment. Just as a physician would never enter a patient room without the right PPE, that same physician should never enter the future without the appropriate armor of a sound financial plan. As one would expect, “[…those] who are most inquisitive about debt are the most successful at paying it off.” It should be no surprise that the same is expected about those most engaged in pursuing — and protecting — their desired physical and financial futures.

Ben Bache-Wiig, MD spent 21 years practicing general internal medicine and critical care. He then spent over a decade as a physiatrist executive serving progressive leadership roles in integrated delivery systems. He is currently working as a consultant in health care.

Katie Jacobson, CFP® CLU® ChFC® managed implementations for Epic before specializing in building personal financial plans for health care leaders and medical providers. She is part of the ~1.2% of advisors nationally who are female, under 30, and a board CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™.

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