As Residents Face Pandemic Burnout, Siegel and Team Search for Solutions


A growing mental health crisis has been reported since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and there is no manifestation of its stopping. A current Boston University study notes that depression rates have tripled since quarantine began earlier this year.

As we enter the winter season, there's more concern that these rates can get a whole lot worse with the increased isolation caused by the weather, the holiday season, and a divisive selection season. But that new study also misses one group that is getting hit especially hard by the pandemic: medical residents.

What's happening for this particular number of doctors? Are residents more vulnerable to depression during these challenging times?

Yes, says a research team led by Jason Siegel, a professor within the Division of Behavioral and Organizational Science.

That team is seeking methods to help them having a research project under way in partnership with a healthcare facility Corporation of the usa (HCA), an organization that operates some 186 hospitals and thousands of other care sites in the U.S. and abroad.

Siegel and the student research team are trying to find to develop strategies that hospitals can use to minimize stress and depression for this especially hard-hit segment of doctors.

The Medical Profession’s Workhorses

Aside from nurses, medical residents are among the profession's workhorses: They face long hours and grueling schedules that can deprive them of sleep, affect their diets, and limit normal healthy social interactions (Gray's Anatomy makes all of this seem far more glamorous than it is really).

\”Before COVID-19, residents were already struggling,\” Siegel explained. \”They're a really resilient group, but you can't bring them as a given, especially now. Taking better steps to make sure their health and well-being is helpful not only for them, either. It's obviously important because of their patients.\”

Creating hospital interventions and other strategies to lower levels of stress for residents.

What causes burnout among many medical residents?

In pre-pandemic times, Siegel noted there are many reasons for burnout among medical residents. Included in this are long work hours, limited amounts of autonomy, a lack of certainty concerning the future, and the perception that personal needs should be put aside.

To work under those kinds of conditions was hard before, but now “during COVID-19 it’s become even harder and they're feeling more worn down,\” he said.

Finding value and meaning in one's work is critical. Without that, Siegel said, what happens to someone \”is an unfortunate chain of events. Burnout can result in depression, and that depression can lead to even deeper depression. It’s also possible they’ll be not as likely to seek help on their own or go that step further for patients.\”

So the team's HCA study is supposed to highlight the plight of residents in this especially stressful time and to utilize hospital systems to take as humane a technique for handling them as possible-especially the number of hours they're logging-and to help them keep their psychological capital as intact as possible.

A Team With Diverse Skills, Experience

The genesis from the project would be a partnership between Gregory Guldner, a physician and program director of Riverside Community Hospital/University of California Riverside, and DBOS graduate student Anne Brafford, who worked with Guldner on the project for certainly one of Siegel’s classes.

Siegel credits the work they do together (which led to two previous smaller HCA contracts) for resulting in a new contract and partnership that has enlisted Siegel and his students (including Brafford). That team includes Gabrielle Riazi, Brendon Ellis, and Stephanie Ramirez. Without the initial work conducted by Guldner and Brafford, as well as the support from HCA, Siegel said this project would not exist.

Brafford, who had been an attorney and author of a book about lawyers and wellbeing before enrolling at CGU, is about to write her dissertation; Ellis is close to beginning his dissertation work; Riazi is another year psychology doctoral student who’s also completing her MPH; and Ramirez is starting her second year in a dual public health and psychology master's and plans to visit school of medicine.

“It's rarely too soon to plunge into field work. That’s what I tell all of my students,” Siegel said. “You shouldn’t have to wait until after graduation to conduct important, helpful work that’s going to improve someone’s life.”

Research results

The team conducted market research of medical residents (most out of the U.S. with a few participants from abroad) and received data from 366 respondents. The average age of survey participants was 31, and the survey checked out a range of factors that bring about their sustained experiences of stress.

Some of those factors are not surprising: Residents reported that the increased workload and work schedule directly translated into a much greater degree of burnout. The team’s current survey suits a bigger effort that's also recording amounts of resident stress pre-pandemic.

Over time, Siegel said, the team's plan is to look at the variations in these sets of data and and come track of some recommendations and wellness interventions that hospitals may use to safeguard the healthiness of their residents. The team’s work includes co-authoring a forthcoming paper regarding their research results.

Siegel said they’re pleased to work on this with HCA, which “cares greatly not only about their sufferers however their medical professionals, too.”

“No one’s safe from stress, not even doctors,” he added. “It’s very critical to protect their well-being because it has widespread consequences. Not only does remarkable ability to take care of themselves decline, it may impact the excellence of the care they are providing, too.”

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