From the Journals

High rates of work-related trauma, PTSD in intern physicians


Work-related posttraumatic stress disorder is three times higher in interns than the general population, new research shows.

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Investigators assessed PTSD in more than 1,100 physicians at the end of their internship year and found that a little over half reported work-related trauma exposure, and of these, 20% screened positive for PTSD.

Overall, 10% of participants screened positive for PTSD by the end of the internship year, compared with a 12-month PTSD prevalence of 3.6% in the general population.

“Work-related trauma exposure and PTSD are common and underdiscussed phenomena among intern physicians,” lead author Mary Vance, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, Md., said in an interview.

“I urge medical educators and policy makers to include this topic in their discussions about physician well-being and to implement effective interventions to mitigate the impact of work-related trauma and PTSD among physician trainees,” she said.

The study was published online June 8 in JAMA Network Open.

Burnout, depression, suicide

“Burnout, depression, and suicide are increasingly recognized as occupational mental health hazards among health care professionals, including physicians,” Dr. Vance said.

“However, in my professional experience as a physician and educator, I have not come across many discussions about work-related trauma exposure and its psychological consequences among physicians, despite observing anecdotal evidence among my peers and trainees that this is also an issue,” she added.

This gap prompted her “to investigate rates of work-related trauma exposure and PTSD among physicians.”

The researchers sent emails to 4,350 individuals during academic year 2018-2019, 2 months prior to starting internships. Of these, 2,129 agreed to participate and 1,134 (58.6% female, 61.6% non-Hispanic White; mean age, 27.52) completed the study.

Prior to beginning internship, participants completed a baseline survey that assessed demographic characteristics as well as medical education and psychological and psychosocial factors.

Participants completed follow-up surveys sent by email at 3, 6, 9, and 12 months of the internship year. The surveys assessed stressful life events, concern over perceived medical errors in the past 3 months, and number of hours worked over the past week.

At month 12, current PTSD and symptoms of depression and anxiety were also assessed using the Primary Care PTSD Screen for DSM-5, the 9-item Patient Health Questionnaire, and the Generalized Anxiety Disorder 7-item scale, respectively.

Participants were asked to self-report whether they ever had an episode of depression and to complete the Risky Families Questionnaire to assess if they had experienced childhood abuse, neglect, and family conflict. Additionally, they completed an 11-item scale developed specifically for the study regarding recent stressful events.

‘Crucible’ year

A total of 56.4% of respondents reported work-related trauma exposure, and among these, 19.0% screened positive for PTSD. One-tenth (10.8%) of the entire sample screened positive for PTSD by the end of internship year, which is three times higher than the 12-month prevalence of PTSD in the general population (3.6%), the authors noted.

Trauma exposure differed by specialty, ranging from 43.1% in anesthesiology to 72.4% in emergency medicine. Of the respondents in internal medicine, surgery, and medicine/pediatrics, 56.6%, 63.3%, and 71%, respectively, reported work-related trauma exposure.

Work-related PTSD also differed by specialty, ranging from 7.5% in ob.gyn. to 30.0% in pediatrics. Of respondents in internal medicine and family practice, 23.9% and 25.9%, respectively, reported work-related PTSD.

Dr. Vance called the intern year “a crucible, during which newly minted doctors receive intensive on-the-job training at the front lines of patient care [and] work long hours in rapidly shifting environments, often caring for critically ill patients.”

Work-related trauma exposure “is more likely to occur during this high-stress internship year than during the same year in the general population,” she said.

She noted that the “issue of workplace trauma and PTSD among health care workers became even more salient during the height of COVID,” adding that she expects it “to remain a pressure issue for healthcare workers in the post-COVID era.”


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