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Covid-19 pandemic tramatised doctors in hospitals and doctor's surgeries

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For many people, the Covid pandemic was an extreme emergency situation with major challenges. This was particularly true for healthcare workers. One key question was: were physicians able to cope with the extraordinary stress situations in their professional lives, or did their mental health suffer as a result? To answer these questions, the cardiologist Prof. Andreas Goette from the St. Vincenz Hospital in Paderborn and the psychosomatician and DZHK researcher Prof. Karl-Heinz Ladwig from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) interviewed doctors during the pandemic.

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How did doctors experience their own actions during the pandemic? How did they deal with particularly stressful situations? Doctors from various specialties gave their personal assessments in an anonymised online survey in late autumn 2021. The study was carried out in cooperation with the Kompetenznetz Vorhofflimmern e.V. (AFNET) and the Medical Association of Westphalia-Lippe. The results will be published in April 2023.

"In the second year of the pandemic, there were more and more reports of overworked and exhausted doctors. We carried out this systematic study to investigate the problem using scientific methods," explains study leader Prof. Goette. "When analysing the data, we were also interested in the following questions: How do the effects of the pandemic differ between hospital doctors and general practitioners? Is long professional experience helpful in coping with this stress? Are there gender-specific differences in the impact of the pandemic on physicians?
A total of 1476 physician members of the Medical Association of Westphalia-Lippe took part in the online survey, which was conducted over a period of six weeks at the end of 2021. They answered questions about their life situation, the patients they treated and the stress they themselves were exposed to.

Of the respondents, 1139 had treated Covid-19 patients themselves. About half of these doctors worked in hospitals (586), the other half in private practices (553). They worked in general medicine, internal medicine, surgery, gynaecology and paediatrics.

Covid-19 led to conflicts with medical-ethical principles in everyday work. More than a third of the respondents, especially those in private practice, felt that external constraints were interfering with their medical work. Almost half (48%) of hospital doctors and just over a quarter (27%) of general practitioners reported cases in which they had great difficulty in respecting the dignity of the patient.

At the peak of the fourth wave of the pandemic, a remarkable number of the doctors surveyed - a quarter - were suffering from depression (23 percent) or anxiety (24 percent). A comparison with studies at the beginning of the pandemic shows an increase in emotional distress.

More than half (63 percent of hospital doctors and 53 percent of general practitioners) reported feeling helpless. The majority complained of sleep problems. Women and doctors with only a few years' experience were particularly affected.

Prof. Ladwig concludes: "The results of our study show clearly: The pandemic and in particular the treatment of Covid-19 patients had serious consequences for the work of doctors in hospitals and practices. In some cases, the ethical principles of medical practice were called into question. Even for experienced physicians who are used to dealing with difficult situations, the traumatising content of their work did not pass them by unnoticed, but led to psychological problems and breakdowns in mental health to an extent that many had not expected. As we can see, physicians were not able to adapt to the situation as the pandemic progressed; on the contrary, emotional stress increased over time. Emotional disturbances among doctors have reached a critical level."

Prof Goette adds: "It is distressing to see how the psychological burden of us physicians has steadily increased throughout the pandemic. The rate of significant psychological effects during the fourth corona wave seemed truly significant. Hopefully, the end of the pandemic will lead to an improvement in the results, but this remains to be seen and requires further research."


Original publication:  Ladwig KH et al. Covid-19 pandemic-induced traumatising medical work content and mental health disturbances in physicians working in private practice and hospitals. Nature Scientific Reports. 2023; 13:5284. DOI: 10.1038/s41598-023-32412-y

Source: Press release from the Kompetenznetz Vorhofflimmern e.V. (AFNET)