Extraordinary response to doctor survey reveals ‘immense’ level of pandemic distress


By Sunalie Silva

16 Sep 2020

A  study designed to address the psychological and social distress of COVID-19 on Australia’s frontline health workers is receiving ‘remarkable’ interest with many doctors sharing their experiences throughout the pandemic.

Respiratory physician at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and co-lead investigator, Dr Natasha Smallwood, developed the study, Future Proofing Frontline Healthcare Workers in times of Pandemic and Other Crises, after seeing the fear and disruption among colleagues grow as the impact of coronavirus began to take its toll.

The study explores the social, work and mental health effects experienced by frontline health workers during the current pandemic and sets out to identify risk factors that contribute to poorer mental health.

Dr Smallwood told the limbic that more than 4,000 responses had been received in just the first 10 days of the survey going live in Victoria. It’s now on track to being one of the largest in the world on the topic.

The ‘extraordinary’ response to the survey along with grant funding has pushed the originally intended ‘small-scale’ survey to a large national study with researchers now aiming to reach a sample size of 15,000 participants.

Dr Smallwood says the immense distress and disruption felt by many healthcare workers – and the need to share those experiences – has driven the high engagement with the study.

“We’ve all experienced significant upheaval over an incredibly short period of time – we’ve had to change the entire way we manage care while also trying to balance homeschooling, not being able to see family and the personal threat to our own mortality and the fear that we might infect our children, elderly parents, colleagues.

There has been significant upheaval in our lives and it’s occurred over an incredibly short period of time. To experience so much social change, so much change professionally and the distress that causes, is a huge shock to the system and  and I think people really want to share what this distress and disruption has meant to them.”

Social isolation and lack of support

One theme already emerging from the research is the sense of isolation that many healthcare workers have been experiencing, Dr Smallwood explains.

“The isolation, the loneliness – it’s an immense theme and it’s extraordinary because these are health professionals that work in teams, the majority work in public hospitals, and they’re saying they have felt unsupported and isolated, that they haven’t been effectively communicated with and it is contributing so much to their distress.”

Inadvertently the survey has also been a way of capturing what health professionals want to see change, says Dr Smallwood.

“People are giving us very clear recommendations for what they want – what should have been done better and what must be done better for the future. We regularly go through epidemics, we regularly have crises like bushfires and they cause immense social distress and I think people are saying enough is enough. Next time we want to be better supported and not with ad hoc Inconsistent approaches that vary from hospital to hospital; people want a much more coordinated, consistent response.”

The implications for the study are widespread, says Dr Smallwood explaining that the survey is the first part of a bigger study that will include qualitative interviews with healthcare workers that will be used to work with state governments and Colleges to bring about change.

“We’re not doing this just to be a ‘me too’ prevalence study to say things have been bad in Australia too – we really want to use this to bring about change. The survey gives us a very broad idea of the anxiety, stress and burn out that healthcare workers are experiencing right now and the qualitative work – that deeper dive into those lived experiences – will allow us to identify what is key in trying to co-design solutions for the future to protect the workforce from experiencing something as severely as we’ve had to this time.

Healthcare workers can access the study here.

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