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COVID-19 accelerated psychological problems for critical care clinicians



Approximately one-third of critical care workers reported some degree of depression, anxiety, or somatic symptoms in the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, based on survey results from 939 health care professionals.

The emotional response of professionals in a critical care setting in the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic has not been well studied, Robyn Branca, PhD, and Paul Branca, MD, of Carson Newman University and the University of Tennessee Medical Center, both in Knoxville, wrote in an abstract presented at the virtual Critical Care Congress sponsored by the Society of Critical Care Medicine.

The prevalence of depression, anxiety, and somatization is low in the general population overall, but the researchers predicted that these conditions increased among workers in critical care settings early in the pandemic.

To assess the prevalence of psychological problems during that time, they sent an email survey on April 7, 2020, to members of the Society of Critical Care Medicine. The survey collected data on demographics, perceived caseload, and potential course of the pandemic. The survey also collected responses to assessments for depression (using the Patient Health Questionnaire–9), anxiety (using the Generalized Anxiety Disorder [GAD] Scale–7), and symptom somatization (using the PHQ-15).

Of the 939 survey respondents, 37% were male, 61.4% were female, and 1.4% gave another or no response.

Overall, 32.3% reported encountering 0-50 COVID-19 cases, 31.1% had encountered 51-200 cases, 12.5% had encountered 201-500 cases, 9.4% had encountered 501-1000 cases, and 13.7% had encountered more than 1,000 cases.

Based on the PHQ-9 depression scale, 44.9% of the respondents had minimal symptoms, 31.1% mild symptoms, 14.3% moderate symptoms, and 9.7% met criteria for severe depressive symptoms. Based on the GAD-7 anxiety scale, 35.5% had minimal symptoms, 32.9% mild, 16.8% moderate, and 14.8% had severe symptoms. Based on the PHQ-15 somatization scale, 39.6% of respondents showed minimal symptoms, whereas 38.2% showed mild symptoms, 17.3% moderate symptoms, and 4.9% had a severe degree of somatic symptoms.

The study findings were limited by the reliance on self-reports; however, the results indicate that a high percentage of critical care workers experienced significant, diagnosable levels of depression, anxiety, and somatic symptoms, the researchers said.

The standard guidance is to pursue individual intervention for anyone with scores of moderate or severe on the scales used in the survey, the researchers said.

Therefore, the findings represent “an alarming degree of mental health impact,” they emphasized. “Immediate mitigation efforts are needed to preserve the health of our ICU workforce.”

The study is important at this time because clinician fatigue and occupational stress are at endemic levels, Bernard Chang, MD, of Columbia University Irving Medical Center, New York City, said in an interview. “It is vital that we take stock of how frontline workers in critical care settings are doing overall,” said Dr. Chang.

Dr. Chang, who was not involved with the study but has conducted research on mental health in frontline health care workers during the pandemic, said he was not surprised by the findings. “This work builds on the growing body of literature in the pandemic noting high levels of stress, fatigue, and depression/anxiety symptoms across many frontline workers, from emergency department staff, first responders and others. These are all data points highlighting the urgent need for a broad safety net, not only for patients but the providers serving them.”

The takeaway message: “Clinicians are often so focused on providing care for their patients that they may overlook the need to care for their own well-being and mental health,” said Dr. Chang.

As for additional research, “we need to now take this important data and build on creating and identifying tangible solutions to improve the morale of the acute care/health care workforce to ensure career longevity, professional satisfaction, and overall well-being,” Dr. Chang emphasized. Mental health and morale affect not only health care workers, but also the patients they care for. Well–cared for health care providers can be at their best to provide the optimal care for their patients.

The study received no outside funding. The researchers and Dr. Chang disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

A version of this article first appeared on

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