The COVID-19 pandemic has caused an unprecedented increase in the need for emergency and critical care services. People across the globe are experiencing heightened stress. Front-line workers, who have stressful jobs even during the calmest of times, are facing new challenges both at work and at home.
Researchers at Baylor Scott & White Research Institute (BSWRI) have designed a study to gain insight into the coping strategies that can help people navigate these uncertainties and to map the psychological impact of the COVID-19 response, with a special focus on healthcare professionals and first responders.
What will they study?
The study, which will be conducted entirely online, will survey individuals in the community for up to 24 months about their experiences and psychological needs related to COVID-19. The study team intends to enroll at least 5,000 participants from across the Baylor Scott & White Health footprint in Texas, and beyond.
Ann Marie Warren, PhD, Research Center Director for Behavioral Health and co-Director of the Trauma Research Center at BSWRI, is the Principal Investigator on the study. The study design will build upon insights from Dr. Warren’s previous studies on post-traumatic stress in healthcare workers and on the psychological impact of traumatic injury.
Early reports about the psychological needs of Chinese healthcare workers have noted that some negative psychological consequences are specific to COVID-19, and these factors will be considered in the current study. Dr. Warren mentions “There are many questions that are also unique to front-line workers as opposed to those self-isolating at home. Are people fearful of continuing in their jobs due to the high potential of exposure? Are they scared of bringing the virus home to their families?”
They will also evaluate changes in behavior and lifestyle factors, many of which may be specifically affected by the limitations imposed by local and national virus response programs. In particular, mandated isolation from family and friends is a unique aspect of this crisis and could increase the risk of negative outcomes. Then, for individuals who contract COVID-19, the researchers will also ask about the disease progression. It is known that when people spend time in the intensive care unit, especially on a ventilator, there are long-term psychological impacts from that experience. They will consider these complexities as part of an overall picture of COVID-19-related psychological challenge.
How is it different?
This study is among the first projects worldwide that seek to understand the long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on front-line workers. Dr. Warren notes that it will be important to consider the cultural and geographical context behind the data. “Given the variability in governmental responses to the crisis, we will look at the data by zip code to understand whether the impacts are different depending on the prevention measures that were enacted to prevent transmission.”
The unprecedented scope of the COVID-19 crisis will also allow this study to include more participants than the team has studied in prior research endeavors. Thus, the researchers will be able to use more powerful data analysis techniques, such as machine learning and modeling, which can provide insights not available from smaller data sets.
In addition, Dr. Warren points out that the length of their study may reveal unique information about the timing of certain psychological impacts “We have never been able to study a healthcare crisis happening on this kind of scale. We might find that people experience most distress at the beginning and then develop coping strategies. It is also possible that the psychological impacts will increase over time, especially if the economy is slow to recover.”
How will this information be used?
According to Dr. Warren, “One important goal is to understand what strategies are working to reduce negative psychological consequences and then to get that information out to help others.” Given the many unique aspects of pandemic response, it is possible that their data will reveal surprising factors that influence success.
The information can also be used to tailor psychological support programs so they best meet the needs of front-line workers. Dr. Warren notes that her team’s prior research shows that effective interventions need to be tailored to the demanding lifestyles of emergency response workers “These people are not going to be able to stop and do 30 minutes of yoga twice a day. Successful interventions must be convenient and must not get in the way of their other needs.” Thus, they will consider intervention strategies in the context of the specific needs of the population.
Dr. Warren also offers an overall message “Our research shows again and again that people have an amazing capacity for resilience. I believe that we will get through this. Our goal is to support this fundamental capacity for resilience with practical information based on data.”