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Pandemic's Toll: 55.3% of Surveyed Healthcare Workers Report Subthreshold PTSD Symptoms

Analysis  |  By Christopher Cheney  
   January 24, 2023

Researchers gauged PTSD and subthreshold PTSD levels among emergency department and emergency medical service workers.

In a recently published study conducted during the coronavirus pandemic, 5.5% of healthcare workers met criteria for probable posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and 55.3% experienced subthreshold PTSD symptoms (PTSS).

The pandemic has been associated with higher levels of burnout among healthcare workers. The pandemic has increased the risk of healthcare workers developing PTSD.

The recent study, which was published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, is based on survey data collected from 852 healthcare workers from January 2021 to February 2021. The survey participants were recruited from emergency departments affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and emergency medical service agencies in several states, including Maryland, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia.

The study features several key findings:

  • Nursing and patient support services workers were less likely to be in the no symptoms group and more likely to be in the subthreshold PTSS group compared to ambulance and transport services workers.
     
  • Physicians and mid-level providers reported fewer physical health symptoms than any other job category.
     
  • Nursing and patient support services workers reported more sleep problems than all other job categories.
     
  • Survey participants who fell into the subthreshold PTSS group and the probable PTSD group were more likely to report health impairment than survey participants who fell into the no PTSS group.
     
  • The adjusted likelihood of having physical symptoms was 1.87 times more likely in the subthreshold PTSS group and 3.38 times more likely in the probable PTSD group than the no PTSS group.
     
  • The adjusted likelihood of having sleep problems was 1.36 times more likely in the subthreshold PTSS group and 1.96 times more likely in the probable PTSD group than the no PTSS group.
     
  • The three most common health impacts reported by members of the probable PTSD group were relatively common in the subthreshold PTSS group: 93.6% of PTSD group reported sleep problems and 69.4% of the PTSS group reported sleep problems, 74.5% of the PTSD group reported constant fatigue and 37.1% of the PTSS group reported constant fatigue, and 72.3% of the PTSD group reported weight change and 46.3% of the PTSS group reported weight change.

"The present investigation demonstrates the prevalence and significance of subthreshold PTSS in [healthcare workers] responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, it demonstrates that to promote [healthcare workers'] mental health, subthreshold PTSS must be accounted for and incorporated into the intervention approaches employed in this population," the study's co-authors wrote.

Healthcare workers who experience subthreshold PTSD symptoms are afflicted with significant health conditions, Bryce Hruska, PhD, assistant professor of public health in the Falk College at Syracuse University, said in a prepared statement. "Even though they weren't reporting symptoms indicative of a clinical diagnosis of PTSD, these workers were still feeling its effects."

As the pandemic ebbs and flows, healthcare workers remain at elevated risk of PTSD and PTSS, he said. "While the world tries to move on from the pandemic, our healthcare workers continue to face a significant mental health risk with every surge in cases, as is happening now."

Christopher Cheney is the senior clinical care​ editor at HealthLeaders.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

The coronavirus pandemic has increased the risk of healthcare workers developing posttraumatic stress disorder.

Physicians and mid-level providers reported fewer physical health symptoms than any other job category.

Nursing and patient support services workers reported more sleep problems than all other job categories.


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