Insomnia Highly Prevalent Among Doctors, Nurses On Coronavirus Front Lines

GUANGZHOU, China — Medical professionals on the front lines fighting the novel coronavirus are embroiled in high-stress situations seemingly every second of their days. It doesn’t seem too surprising then that a new study performed in China reveals that more than one-third of healthcare workers suffered from insomnia during the peak of the outbreak.

Researchers at Southern Medical University in China say that those who experienced this restlessness were also more likely to feel depressed, anxious and have stress-based trauma.

Clinicians who battle insomnia are also more likely to experience depression and anxiety symptoms, the study shows. (© Robert Kneschke – stock.adobe.com)

Healthcare workers are facing an increasing number of confirmed and suspected cases, forcing them to stay constantly gowned in full personal protection equipment (which are low in supply). On top of that, they are concerned about their own health and the risk of spreading the coronavirus to their families, and they must spend a lot of time in isolation. 

“Under these dangerous conditions, medical staff become mentally and physically exhausted, and therefore experience an increased risk of insomnia due to high stress,” write the authors of the study.

Researchers used online questionnaires for their study. They reached out to medical workers in hospitals throughout China, including Wuhan where the coronavirus originated. In all, 1,563 workers in the medical field filled out the questionnaires between Jan. 29 – Feb. 3, when the pandemic was at its peak in China.

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Results of the study show that 36.1% of the medical workers who filled out the questionnaire had insomnia symptoms. The vast majority (87.1%) of these workers also suffered from depression — much higher than the 31% of workers with depression and no insomnia. Having insomnia symptoms increased the likelihood of experiencing anxiety and trauma as well.

“Typically, stress-related insomnia is transient and persists for only a few days,” says co-author Dr. Bin Zhang, a professor at Southern Medical University in Guangzhou, China, in a release. “But if the COVID-19 outbreak continues, the insomnia may gradually become chronic insomnia in the clinical setting.”

The researchers discovered some correlations between medical staff characteristics and insomnia symptoms. Lower-educated workers were 2.7 times more likely to experience insomnia than staff with a doctoral degree. Also, medical workers that were forced to work in isolation were 1.7 times more likely to develop symptoms.

“The most important factor was having very strong uncertainty regarding effective disease control among medical staff,” Zhang reports. Healthcare workers experiencing insomnia were 3.3 times more likely to have strong feelings of uncertainty.

Researchers note that a similar number of nurses (37%) experienced insomnia during the 2002 SARS epidemic. Studies of SARS healthcare workers show that insomnia symptoms were most prevalent at the height of the outbreak, but gradually improved after 2 weeks. Hopefully symptoms will not persist in the COVID-19 healthcare workers. Researchers plan to continue to study these workers.

“A longitudinal study to track the changes of insomnia symptoms is needed among medical staff, especially when the death of medical staff during COVID-19 will be officially announced and updated,” Zhang concludes.

The study is published in Frontiers in Psychiatry.

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