Industry News: A new test could improve access to mental health support for healthcare professionals who are burned out from the COVID-19 pandemic

29 Sep 2021

As the Delta variant of the coronavirus spreads, healthcare professionals are finding themselves right back where they were before the vaccines came out: grappling with a flood of COVID-19 patients and the challenges that entail. In some ways, this new wave of COVID-19 cases is hitting healthcare professionals even harder than previous peaks since many people struggle with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder from the pandemic’s earlier phases.

Making matters worse is the fact that healthcare professionals are also severely overworked because thousands have left the field due to the pandemic, causing chronic staffing shortages. Not only is this taking a terrible toll on healthcare professionals’ mental welfare, but it’s also impacting the quality of care that patients receive for both COVID-19 and more routine illnesses. It is therefore vital that hospitals improve healthcare professionals’ access to mental health support.

A blood test for occupational stress could help achieve this goal by making it easier to identify healthcare professionals who need mental health treatment. To find a biomarker that could be used for such a test, a team of researchers led by Hala Demerdash, PhD, of Alexandria University Hospitals in Egypt, set out to determine if blood levels of copeptin correlate with psychological stress. Copeptin is part of a precursor to the hormone arginine vasopressin (which is released in response to stress) that is more stable than the hormone itself. The researchers measured blood copeptin levels in 70 physicians and nurses treating COVID-19 patients in the ICU and gave the participants a psychological stress questionnaire at the same timepoints when their copeptin levels were measured.

From this, the researchers found a positive correlation between blood copeptin levels and study participants’ stress questionnaire scores. Participants worked in the ICU for two weeks, followed by two weeks of isolation at home. They were actually at their most stressed right before entering the ICU due to anticipatory anxiety, with mean blood copeptin levels of 15.67 ± 8.6 pmol/L and mean stress questionnaire scores of 66.9 ± 18.3. Then after isolating at home for two weeks, their mean copeptin levels and questionnaire scores dropped markedly to 3.98 ± 1.28 pmol/L and 23.0 ± 7.95, respectively.

“Before we began this study, we observed that the healthcare providers who were going to be enrolled in the ICU were suffering anxiety problems,” said Demerdash. “Some were even trying to find excuses to postpone their shifts. Therefore, I decided, why not measure stress hormones and correlate them with stress questionnaire scores and the providers’ degree of anxiety. From this, I found that copeptin was significantly elevated in healthcare providers before they went into the ICU and that copeptin may be used as a potential biomarker for physiological strain during work in a stressful environment.”

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