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J Surg Educ. 2019 Sep - Oct;76(5):1211-1222. doi: 10.1016/j.jsurg.2019.03.012. Epub 2019 Apr 9.

Compassion Fatigue in Surgical Trainees.

Author information

1
Department of Surgery, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
2
Department of Surgery, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Sunnybrook Research Institute, Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
3
Department of Surgery, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Sunnybrook Research Institute, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
4
Department of Psychiatry, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
5
Sunnybrook Research Institute, Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Electronic address: lesley.gotlibconn@sunnybrook.ca.

Abstract

OBJECTIVE:

Compassion fatigue (CF) is the profound sense of emotional exhaustion that care providers can experience as the result of helping others in distress. CF can contribute to burnout (BO), depression, and stress-related illness. While surgeons and surgical trainees may be at high risk for developing CF, it has not been adequately characterized or explored in this population. The objective of this study was to examine the prevalence and impact of CF in surgical trainees with a view to inform a management strategy.

STUDY DESIGN AND SETTING:

A mixed method study was conducted using survey and interview methods. An email survey including the Professional Quality of Life Scale Version 5, an instrument to assess CF, was sent to all trainees in the Department of Surgery at the University of Toronto. Survey data were analyzed descriptively and using one-sample t tests. Semistructured interviews were conducted with volunteered trainees. Data collection and analysis occurred iteratively and inductively using the constant comparison method.

RESULTS:

One hundred fifteen trainees completed the survey representing a 47% response rate. Ninety-nine respondents (40.7%) completed the Professional Quality of Life Scale tool. The mean score on the compassion satisfaction subscale was 36.9 (SD 6.7), on the BO subscale was 26.2 (SD 5.6), and on the secondary traumatic stress (STS) subscale was 21.2 (SD 6.3). The mean on the compassion satisfaction subscale was not statistically different from the population mean (p = 0.22). The means for the BO and STS scales were statistically higher in our study sample compared to the normative data (p < 0.0001 for each). Thematic qualitative findings indicated trainees experienced CF symptoms. Participants described systemic barriers to mitigating CF including workload and a cultural expectation to be unemotional at work.

CONCLUSION:

Surgical trainees report high levels of BO and STS and currently use informal coping strategies outside of their academic and hospital environments. Trainees are likely to welcome and benefit from an organized response to support their emotional health when facing difficult patient encounters.

KEYWORDS:

Interpersonal and Communication Skills; Patient Care; Professionalism; compassion fatigue; interviews; stress; surgical training; survey

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