April 18, 2023

Study provides evidence that peer-support groups can be beneficial in reducing healthcare worker stress and burnout

illustration of doctor surrounded by other doctors, light pushing darkness, depression away

Historically, this population has had low uptake of mental health resources

Serving on the front lines in the arduous battle against the coronavirus, emergency department (ED) physicians are among the true heroes of the pandemic, working long, stressful hours at great personal risk, especially in the many months before vaccines became available. A pilot study examining the feasibility, receptivity and preliminary effectiveness of peer-support groups for ED doctors during COVID-19, found this support provided potential benefit in terms of reduction of mental health stresses involved in emergency care during this time.

The researchers assessed change in symptoms of distress, depression and burnout before and after participating in virtual, group-based peer support for eight weeks. While historically physicians have low uptake of mental health resources, 86 percent of the doctors participating in the study indicated they would recommend peer support groups to a friend or colleague.

“Emergency departments have always been high stress environments and COVID at least doubled the stress,” said study co-author and national leader in the study of medical symptoms Kurt Kroenke, M.D., of the Regenstrief Institute and Indiana University School of Medicine. “Stress on the job can lead to burnout and other negative consequences. It’s an important question as to how we can help our healthcare workers under high stress conditions like COVID.”

The pilot study reported a trend toward reduction of psychologic distress and burnout symptoms associated with working in emergency care when physicians came together virtually in peer support groups.

That ED physicians were receptive to peer-support groups and found them helpful can be relevant to other clinicians working in the ED as well as other stressful medical environments such as intensive care units,” said Dr. Kroenke. “The physicians in our study came together in a group only a handful of times. This is a fairly low-cost intervention that healthcare systems could provide. Even with the pandemic now winding down, I think it could be beneficial for healthcare workers in stressful situations across the board.”

During this pilot study, short versions of depression and anxiety screening tools co- developed by Dr. Kroenke, as well as burnout measurement screeners, were administered to ED physicians and their responses analyzed, revealing evidence of a trend toward decreased symptoms.

The study authors conclude, “Promising signs of improvement in distress, anxiety, depression, and burn out symptoms warrant additional studies with larger sample sizes and more robust research designs to establish the evidence base for peer support in the physician population.”

The use of peer support groups for emergency physicians during the COVID-19 pandemic” is published in Journal of the American College of Emergency Medicine Open. The study was funded by an award to Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute from the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.

Authors and affiliations

Jill Nault Connors, PhD1
Tanner Thornsberry, B.S., M.S.1
Julie Hayden, B.S.2
Kurt Kroenke, M.D.3,4
Patrick O. Monahan, PhD5
Claire Draucker, PhD, R.N.6
Sally Wasmuth, PhD, OTR7
Heather Kelker, M.D.8
Anne Whitehead, M.D.8
Julie Welch, M.D.8

1 Department of Surgery, Indiana University School of Medicine, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA
2 National Alliance on Mental Illness of Greater Indianapolis, Inc, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA
3 Department of Medicine, Indiana University School of Medicine, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA
4 Regenstrief Institute, Inc, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA
5 Department of Biostatistics and Health Data Science, Indiana University School of Medicine, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA
6 Indiana University School of Nursing, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA
7 School of Health & Human Sciences, IndianaUniversity-Purdue University at Indianapolis, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA
8 Department of Emergency Medicine, Indiana University School of Medicine, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

About Kurt Kroenke, M.D.
In addition to his role as a research scientist at Regenstrief Institute, Kurt Kroenke, M.D., is director of the Master of Science in Clinical Research program and a professor of medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine.

About Regenstrief Institute
Founded in 1969 in Indianapolis, the Regenstrief Institute is a local, national and global leader dedicated to a world where better information empowers people to end disease and realize true health. A key research partner to Indiana University, Regenstrief and its research scientists are responsible for a growing number of major healthcare innovations and studies. Examples range from the development of global health information technology standards that enable the use and interoperability of electronic health records to improving patient-physician communications, to creating models of care that inform practice and improve the lives of patients around the globe.

Sam Regenstrief, a nationally successful entrepreneur from Connersville, Indiana, founded the institute with the goal of making healthcare more efficient and accessible for everyone. His vision continues to guide the institute’s research mission.

About IU School of Medicine
IU School of Medicine is the largest medical school in the U.S. and is annually ranked among the top medical schools in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. The school offers high-quality medical education, access to leading medical research and rich campus life in nine Indiana cities, including rural and urban locations consistently recognized for livability.

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