The distress experiencing by many as a result of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic extends beyond frontline healthcare workers. COVID-19 has affected the entire medical field, causing elevated levels of stress and burnout.
A recent study in PLOS One examined the emotional health of US oncologists during the COVID-19 pandemic.¹ The researchers found a concerning level of distress in these physicians that needs to be addressed so that they can better treat their patients and safeguard their own mental health.
- Anxiety and depression
The study looked at the concerns of 374 oncologists who completed a questionnaire and were recruited between March 27 and April 10, 2020. Nearly three-quarters (74.5%) of respondents were practicing in a state with more than 1000 confirmed COVID-19 cases. Nearly two-thirds (62%) of the physicians showed symptoms of anxiety, and 36.6% of these physicians showed depression symptoms. The researchers reported characteristics that may be associated with a higher likelihood of anxiety, such as being younger and having fewer years of experience in clinical practice.
- Concern of interference with work
The ways COVID-19 affected an oncologist’s daily life were found to correlate with higher levels of anxiety. As the pandemic quickly spread across the country, many of the physicians questioned became concerned that it would interfere with their ability to provide quality treatment to their patients with active cancer. Oncologists rated the ability of the pandemic to interfere with cancer treatment as a problem regardless of anxiety symptoms. Those with symptoms, however, rated the interference of the pandemic as a more severe problem, making this concern a possible driver of anxiety. In addition, 243 oncologists (65.9%) said they were moderately or extremely concerned about transmitting COVID-19 to their patients.
- Fear of infecting family
That fear of getting COVID-19 and transmitting it to their family members is another significant concern of oncologists. Of the 374 physicians surveyed, 279 (74.6%) reported moderate or extreme concern that one of their family members would get COVID-19, which is greater than physicians who reported concern about getting COVID-19 themselves (224 physicians [60%]). This concern was highly associated with symptoms of anxiety.
- Reluctance to work
High levels of anxiety can be overwhelming and create significant psychological distress, which can manifest in different ways among healthcare providers. A 2020 study from Comprehensive Psychiatry examined the psychological distress of workers at 5 hospitals in Chongqing, China, during 2 weeks in February 2019.² One concern that correlated highly with psychological distress was a reluctance to come to work. Some workers were so reluctant to work that they considered resignation.
- Sleep disturbances
Inconsistent sleep, whether due to erratic scheduling or stress, can worsen anxiety. A December 2020 study published in JMIR Public Health and Surveillance found that healthcare workers in India who had poorer sleep quality during the COVID-19 pandemic had higher levels of anxiety.³ The researchers also identified an association between sleep disturbances and younger age, as well as with an inadequate availability of equipment. They concluded that these levels of anxiety and sleep problems not only worsen stress, but also put healthcare workers at increased risk of contracting COVID-19.
- Tobacco and alcohol consumption
In a study published in JCO Global Oncology, 222 oncology residents in France responded to a survey about the psychological impact of the pandemic.⁴ Among the findings from the survey was that tobacco consumption increased for 31% of responding residents, while alcohol consumption increased was reported to be increased in 29% respondents.
Burnout management is essential for the betterment of oncologists and their patients. If mental health and peer-support programs are accessible, take advantage of them. Working to manage your sleep or meditate more often, even if it seems small, can make a large difference in your mental state.
- Thomaier L, Teoh D, Jewett P, et al. Emotional health concerns of oncology physicians in the United States: fallout during the COVID-19 pandemic. PLoS One. 2020;15(11):e0242767. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0242767
- Juan Y, Yuanyuan C, Qiuxiang Y, et al. Psychological distress surveillance and related impact analysis of hospital staff during the COVID-19 epidemic in Chongqing, China. Compr Psychiatry. 2020;103:152198. doi:10.1016/j.comppsych.2020.152198
- Gupta B, Sharma V, Kumar N, Mahajan A. Anxiety and sleep disturbances among health care workers during the COVID-19 pandemic in India: cross-sectional online survey. JMIR Public Health Surveill. 2020;6(4):e24206. doi:10.2196/24206
- Hilmi M, Boilève A, Ducousso A, et al. Professional and psychological impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on oncology residents: a national survey. JCO Glob Oncol. 2020;(6):1674-1683. doi:10.1200/go.20.00376