Though initially surprising, these numbers start to make sense when we think about the types of cases that emergency physicians handle regularly: pediatric injuries and arrests, sexual assaults, graphic traumas, failed resuscitations. We are exposed daily to things that would scar most people.
So we push on, maybe drink more than we should when we come home, start having disruptive interactions with colleagues, the quality of our work diminishes, we may get complaints or litigation, we bring our stress home and our personal relationships suffer. All along often without seeking help, and often without fully realizing what is occurring.
These occupational injuries can be the result of a multitude of cumulative difficult cases combined with personal challenges and shift work, or they can occur as a result of a particularly marking case. We have all had cases that profoundly impacted us in some way. What made these cases particularly scarring? Though some are more obvious, like pediatric deaths and severe traumatic injuries, there are a number of more subtle reasons for us to get injured by a case that may seem relatively innocuous to another person. Pre-existing stress, ongoing work stressors, recent cumulative difficult cases, poor coping habits and substance use, limited social support all affect how we process the emotional impact of emergency cases [6,7,8]
Another factor that is often overlooked is relatability of the patient – if they look like a loved one, are the same age as our child, etc, the case can cause the provider distress that may appear disproportionate to the pathology.
This version of the model did not show any evidence of decreasing the rate of PTSD after critical incidents and may have caused injury in some workers. It has now fallen out of favour but I think there are some lessons to learn from it:
- First, support and care for the provider as a whole, including family support and prevention strategies should play an important part of any critical incident management program.
- Secondly, it is important to respect each provider’s own coping methods and not force anyone to participate in any debriefing or conversation about the incident if they are not inclined to do so.
A Canadian survey of EMS providers was done by Halpern in 2006 that for the first time asked first line providers what they found most helpful after a critical incident . They found that a brief time-out period after an incident, support from management and being given the opportunity to discuss with people of their choosing if and when they feel comfortable were the most beneficial interventions.
The British marines have developed the Trauma Risk Management (TRiM)  program which incorporated peer support groups within platoons who check in on their peers 3 days and 1 month after a critical incident and are trained to recognize early signs of psychological injury. While this program is not entirely applicable to our environment, the idea of having a formal peer-support group that is expected to check in with their co-workers if they hear there has been a difficult case is very interesting.
And perhaps most importantly, each member is trained to apply the “mental health continuum” to recognize signs of distress in themselves, their peers, and their subordinates. This program is quite promising for health care providers and could very well be adapted and incorporated in medical education.
|Mental Health Continuum Model from forces.gc.ca R2MR Campaign|