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Embracing the New Normal

By Orrin I. Franko, MD

What if a post-COVID world is actually better than “returning to normal”? As physicians, we routinely push beyond our routines and comfort zone when faced with new information, typically in the form of peer-reviewed studies contradicting long-held beliefs. As surgeons, we often find ourselves in a position to improvise intra-operatively, only to discover a better technique than what we had been accustomed to for decades.  COVID has granted us a similar opportunity once again.

Less surgery, fewer office visits, and more time off. These trends have defined our practices for the past 2 months. While many people are eagerly awaiting a “return to normal,” others (myself included) are asking if that should be the goal. Certainly this recent adjustment period has been physically and emotionally straining. Major shifts in our practice models can be extremely stressful, and it may not be easy to appreciate the time off.  Many of us have been plagued by poor sleep, unfilled downtime, and angst over business decisions. But as we slowly settle into our new normal, and the stress subsides, we must consider the possibility that a post-COVID world is better than what we had before.

Personally, I have enjoyed my slower days at the office. I spend more time with my patients, allowing us to talk about “the pandemic” after completing our formal evaluation. I hear about how they have adjusted their activities, modified travel plans, and FaceTime with grandchildren. My office staff appreciates the lighter schedule, they leave early on some days, and morale is improved. My wife certainly appreciates my new home arrival time of 3 pm, allowing me to take the kids for a bike ride or help prepare dinner (or both), which was otherwise unheard of in a pre-COVID world. As for my kids (ages 5 and 6), I have no idea if they appreciate the extra time with me (but they probably will later). Lastly, I am in the best physical shape of the last 5 years thanks to late starts allowing for a Peloton ride, unscheduled weekends where I can ride on the road for 3-4 hours, and a significant reduction in social eating and restaurants.

Naturally, this all comes at a cost. In our case, I estimate that will be about 30% of my annual compensation. Thankfully, we can afford that and the question I keep wondering to myself is, “Should we keep it like this?” Is 30% of our annual income worth the physical and mental health improvements.  The answer is probably “yes,” but it remains a challenging psychological hurdle to overcome. Having been trained in an environment that thrives off volume and efficiency, slowing down does not come naturally. Hence the need for a worldwide pandemic to force it upon us. Furthermore, the economic uncertainty introduced by this pandemic will undoubtedly instill more conservative financial behaviors, including an increased motivation to bolster my paycheck. Yet, in all reality, we will be financially fine. But, now that we have experienced “the other side,” I wonder how many people plan to return back to the status quo? Maybe the goal should not be to “return to normal” but to embrace our new perspective. 

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