Does caring for trauma patients lead to psychological stress in surgeons?

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Symptoms identical to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have been shown to occur in caregivers of trauma patients. Secondary traumatic stress (STS) characterizes those who exhibit PTSD symptoms related to indirect exposure to a stressor. We hypothesized that caring for trauma patients is associated with symptoms of PTSD/STS.


Surgeons in various specialties (n = 133) were surveyed from January to May 2012 at two regional surgical conferences. Symptoms of PTSD were identified using the Secondary Traumatic Stress Scale (STSS) using specific diagnostic criteria to measure the psychological impact of exposure to trauma patients. Resilience was measured using the Connor-Davidson Resilience Scale 10 items. The amount of time caring for trauma patients was used as a measure of risk exposure. The relationship between STSS, resilience, and exposure to trauma patients was measured with p < 0.05 considered significant.


Twenty-eight surgeons (22%) met diagnostic symptom criteria for PTSD as measured by the STSS. Approximately two thirds of the surgeons (86 of 133, 65%) exhibited at least one symptom of STS. However, the magnitude of exposure to trauma patients was similar between surgeons with and without PTSD symptoms (p = 0.2177). Higher resilience scores were associated with lower STS scores (r = −0.369, p < 0.0001). Most importantly, surgeons who met symptom criteria for PTSD exhibited significantly lower resilience scores (31 [3.4] vs. 34 [3.9], p < 0.0001).


Symptoms of PTSD as measured by the STSS were reported in two thirds of study participants but did not correlate with time spent for caring for trauma patients. One in five reported symptoms consistent with a PTSD. Lower resilience scores correlated with risk of symptoms and may be used to identify those surgeons most at risk. Efforts to better identify, address, and moderate these psychological consequences of surgical care may improve both the emotional well-being and the vocational performance of surgeons.


Epidemiologic study, level IV.

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