Balm of hope for COVID-19-frayed nerves

When healthcare workers send distress signal of exhaustion, it’s not only physical but also psychological

By Rafael Castillo M.D.

Last week we wrote about the possible impact on mental health of the digital thermal checks practically all of us undergo every day.

Is it a trivial issue we shouldn’t worry about? I don’t think so! As I said to a high-ranking health official last week, we should not add any unnecessary source of mental health insult to our people.

Everyone is already worried to death about the current pandemic, and the adverse impact on collective mental health appears to be much worse than the actual effect on the physical health of a small percentage of the population who actually get infected.

I reiterate my suggestion to our Department of Health (DOH) and the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) to ease this mental health aggravating factor by issuing an advisory for security guards and other temperature checkers to point the thermal infrared devices on the wrist or arm instead of the forehead, which may have unfavorable long-term impacts on some people’s subconscious minds.

We did a comparison of forehead and wrist temperatures for one week on all employees and visitors who entered our office. During this observation period, our receptionist took both the forehead and wrist or forearm temperatures of each person.On average, the wrist or forearm temperature was 0.2 to 0.3 degrees lower than the forehead temperature. The normal body temperature is up to 37.5 degrees centigrade. So if one’s temperature on the wrist or forearm is 37 degrees or less, one can safely assume there’s no fever. If it’s more than 37 degrees, then that’s the only time we can recheck with the forehead temperature two to three times.

In the one week that we conducted this observational study, no temperature reading more than 37 degrees was obtained. So, it’s hardly necessary to “shoot” people in the forehead with the gun-shaped digital infrared thermometer and risk any adverse “reprogramming” that may occur on some psychologically vulnerable individuals in the long term.

It may seem remote, but this constant “reprogramming” also affects the minds of security guards doing the thermal checks, and might reduce their threshold for using real guns. Hopefully not, but no one could discount this possibility.


It cannot be overemphasized that with almost half of the adult population in the country already jobless, and millions more facing a similar prospect in the next several months—as the SARS-CoV-2 virus continually reinvents and repackages itself through mutation—our mental health is really taking a big hit. Our DOH and IATF should be thinking of ways to manage this proactively.

In a Harvard study published last month, almost 80 percent of 1,500 respondents to the survey said they were frustrated at not being able to do what they normally enjoy doing. Around the same number also expressed anxiety about their own health, and nearly nine out of 10 said they were more worried about the health of loved ones, and it’s causing many of them sleepless nights.

In one of our recent Zoom meetings, a highly respected specialist who’s a past president of Philippine College of Physicians shared that he pities his son, who’s now in residency training and a front-liner himself, when he goes home after duty from the hospital. He’s physically exhausted, but worse is the mental exasperation at the thought that despite all best efforts, the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) situation does not seem to be headed anywhere, which does not provide mental comfort and reassurance to our front-liners.

So, that’s another urgent message for our IATF and for the President, too. When the health-care workers send a distress signal of exhaustion, it’s not only physical, but also psychological or emotional. I’m sure well-thought of, concrete plans to address the identified gaps can provide messages of hope that can serve as a soothing balm to weary bodies and frayed nerves. And we need a lot of this balm of hope these days, and none of the infrared “shooting” of the forehead just to check the temperature.


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