Burnout and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms Among Emergency Medicine Resident Physicians During the COVID-19 Pandemic
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Burnout and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms Among Emergency Medicine Resident Physicians During the COVID-19 Pandemic


Introduction: Emergency medicine is characterized by high volume decision-making while under multiple stressors. With the arrival of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) virus in early 2020, physicians across the world were met with a surge of critically ill patients. Emergency physicians (EP) are prone to developing burnout and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), due to experiencing emotional trauma as well as the cumulative stress of practice. Thus, calls have been made for attempts to prevent physician PTSD during this current pandemic. 

Methods: From July 2019–January 2020, emergency medicine (EM) resident physicians at a large, academic healthcare system were surveyed for symptoms of burnout using the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI). In late April and early May 2020, during the outbreak surge of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in the Northeast USA, these same residents and the whole EM residency at the institution were again surveyed for symptoms of burnout as well as post-traumatic stress using the PTSD Checklist for Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (PCL-5). A final survey was administered to the EM residents after the COVID-19 surge had largely subsided in June 2020. 

Results: Twenty-two residents participated in the pre-pandemic study and completed the MBI. Twelve (55%) completed the two follow-up MBI surveys. In the larger EM residency cohort, 31/60 residents completed the MBI and PCL-5 survey during the pandemic peak and 30/60 (50%) completed the follow-up surveys. There were no significant differences in the three MBI burnout category measures of emotional exhaustion (P = 0.49), depersonalization (P = 0.13), and personal accomplishment (P = 0.70) pre-, during, and post-COVID. Of 31 participants, 11 (35%) scored greater than 31 on the PCL-5. Two residents had scores between 21-30, interpreted as “at risk.” At greater than one month follow-up, 2/30 continued to meet criteria for a preliminary PTSD diagnosis, and five were “at risk.”

Conclusion: A significant proportion of residents (35%) experienced post-traumatic symptoms acutely during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, potentially indicating a high prevalence of acute stress disorder in this population and increased risk of developing PTSD. However, there was no significant difference in burnout levels in this cohort before, during, or after the initial COVID-19 surge. Early screening for physicians at risk and referral for assessment and treatment may be important to mitigate pandemic-related PTSD.

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