Patients in emergency departments who experience life-threatening medical conditions and are surrounded by compassionate health care personnel are less likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to a study published in the journal Intensive Care Medicine.
The study tested the hypothesis that, during a life-threatening medical emergency, patient perception of health care provider (HCP) compassion is associated with the subsequent development of PTSD symptoms.
The compassion at the point of care when the patient is going through a life-threatening medical emergency is associated with lower PTSD 30-days later. Specifically, researchers concluded that PTSD symptoms are common among ER patients with life-threatening medical emergencies. And patient perception of greater HCP compassion during the emergency is independently associated with lower risk of developing PTSD symptoms.
Study co-author Dr. Stephen Trzeciak, chief of medicine at Cooper University Health Care and professor and chair of Medicine at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University, leads a team of researchers focused on an area called “compassionomics.”
“We have found a very distinct signal in the scientific literature that compassion matters. What we are doing in this line of research is we are testing hypotheses about how compassion can have beneficial effects for patients, for patient care and for those who care for patients.”
In this observational study, Trzeciak and his colleagues used PTSD as a model in which to test the hypothesis that compassion matters.
Trzeciak, author of a book being released later this month titled Compassionomics: The Revolutionary Scientific Evidence that Caring Makes a Difference, said there is a lot of compelling evidence that many frightening experiences can cause PTSD, including medical emergencies and critical illnesses.
“Oftentimes the most terrifying part of it for patients is when they first get brought into the hospital and they are laying on a gurney in the ER – medical personnel scrambling, trying to save their life – the patient has this awareness that they are trying to save their life. They are terrified.”
If medical professionals act with compassion in a way that helps calm that fear, Trzeciak explained, the emergency itself might not be as scary and the patient could be less likely to end up with PTSD down the road.
“Our hypothesis is maybe we can just prevent it in the first place by making the emergency not as psychologically traumatic for a patient.”
Trzeciak said that going forward more research is necessary to design a study that would allow researchers to infer cause and effect rather than just association.
Physical trauma patients such as those involved in car crashes were excluded from the study because the researchers did not want heterogeneous patient populations. The study specifically included medical emergencies including cardiac and respiratory conditions.
The findings suggest that detecting emotions and responding to patients with genuine warmth and concern and providing overall emotional support could make an important difference in recovery, said Trzeciak.