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New Blood Test for Occupational Stress Identifies Healthcare Professionals Burned out from COVID-19 Pandemic

By LabMedica International staff writers
Posted on 28 Sep 2021
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A new test that could identify healthcare professionals who are experiencing high levels of work-related stress and anxiety was presented at the 2021 AACC Annual Scientific Meeting & Clinical Lab Expo.

The test developed by researchers at the Alexandria University Hospitals (Alexandria, Egypt) could play a critical role in helping healthcare professionals on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic to get essential mental health support.

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 entails. In some ways, this new wave of COVID-19 cases is hitting healthcare professionals even harder than previous peaks due to the fact that many are still struggling 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 as a result of 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 to achieve this goal by making it easier to identify healthcare professionals who need mental health treatment. In an effort to find a biomarker that could be used for such a test, a team of researchers 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 who were treating COVID-19 patients in the ICU, and also gave the participants a psychological stress questionnaire at the same timepoints when their copeptin levels were measured.

From this, the researchers found that there was 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 they went into 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 both 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 Hala Demerdash, PhD, of Alexandria University Hospitals who led the research team. “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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