More than a quarter of cardiologists in an international survey reported experiencing mental health conditions ranging from anxiety or anger issues to major depression or other psychiatric disorders.
Such conditions varied in prevalence by cardiology subspecialty and years in the field, were more common in women than in men, and were closely linked to enduring hostile work environments and other strains of professional life.
The survey, conducted only months before the COVID-19 pandemic and with its share of limitations, still paints a picture that’s not pretty.
For example, mental health concerns were reported by about 42% of respondents who cited a hostile work environment, defined as workplace experience of discrimination based on age, sex, religion, race or ethnicity, or emotional or sexual harassment. Conversely, the prevalence of these concerns reached only 17% among those without such workplace conditions.
The study shows substantial overlap between cardiologists reporting hostility at work and those with mental health concerns, “and that was a significant finding,” Garima Sharma, MD, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland, told theheart.org | Medscape Cardiology.
Still, only 31% of male and 42% of female cardiologists (P < .001) reporting mental health concerns also said they had sought professional help either within or outside their own institutions.
That means “there is a lot of silent suffering” in the field, said Sharma, who is lead author on the December 28 release in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
Bringing Back the Conversation
The survey findings, she added, point to at least two potential ways the cardiology community can strive to diminish what may be a major underlying cause of the mental health concerns and their consequences.
“If you work towards reducing hostility at work and making mental health a priority for your workforce, then those experiencing these types of egregious conditions based on age, gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation are less likely to be harmed.”
Mental health concerns among cardiologists are seldom openly discussed, so the current study can be “a way to bring them back into the conversation,” Sharma said. Clinician mental health “is extremely important because it directly impacts patient care and productivity.”
The survey’s reported mental health conditions “are an issue across the board in medicine, and amongst our medical students as well,” observed senior author Laxmi S. Mehta, MD, professor of Internal Medicine at The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, in an interview. The current study provides new details about their prevalence and predictors in cardiology and, she hopes, may improve the field’s awareness of and efforts to address the problem.
“We need to support those who have underlying mental health conditions, as well as improve the work environment to reduce contributory factors to mental illnesses. And we also need to work on reducing the stigma associated with seeking treatment and on reducing the barriers to receiving treatment ,” said Mehta, who chairs the Workgroup on Clinician Well-Being of the American College of Cardiology, which conducted the survey in 2019.
A Global Perspective
Cardiologists in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Oceania — 5890 in all — responded to mental health questions on the survey, which was novel for its global reach and insights across continents and cultures.
Respondents in South America and Central America reported the highest prevalences of mental health concerns, outliers at about 39% and 33%, respectively. Rates for most other geographic regions ranged narrowly from about 20% to 26%, the lowest reported in Asia and the Middle East.
Sharma acknowledges that the countries probably varied widely in social and cultural factors likely to influence survey responses, such as interpretation of the questionnaire’s mental health terminology or the degree to which the disorders are stigmatized.
“I think it’s hard to say how people may or may not respond culturally to a certain word or metric,” she said. But on the survey results, “whether you’re practicing in rural America, in rural India, or in the United Arab Emirates, Oceania, or Eastern Europe, there is a level of consistency, across the board, in what people are recognizing as mental health conditions.”
Junior vs. Senior Physicians
The global perspective “is a nice positive of the study, and the high rates in Central America and South America I think were something the field was not aware of and are an important contribution,” Srijan Sen, MD, PhD, told theheart.org | Medscape Cardiology.
The psychological toll of hostile work environments is an issue throughout medicine, “but it seems greater in certain specialties, and cardiology may be one where it’s more of a problem,” observed Sen, who studies physician mental health at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, and isn’t associated with the survey.
Mental health concerns in the survey were significantly more common among women than men (33.7% vs 26.3%), and for younger compared with older cardiologists (32.2% for those < 40 vs 22.1% and 16.8% for those 55-69 and 70 or older, respectively).
Those findings seem to make sense, Sen observed. “Generally, cardiology and medicine broadly are hierarchical, so being more junior can be stressful.” And if there’s more hostility in the workplace, “it might fall on junior people.”
In other studies, moreover, “a high level of work-family conflict has been a real driver of depression and burnout, and that likely is affecting younger physicians, particularly young women physicians,” who may have smaller children and a greater burden of childcare than their seniors.
He pointed to the survey’s low response rate as an important limitation of the study. Of the 71,022 cardiologists invited to participate, only 5890 (8.3%) responded and answered the queries on mental health.
With a response rate that low, a survey “can be biased in ways that we can’t predict,” Sen noted. Also, anyone concerned about the toxicity of their own workplace might be “more likely to respond to the survey than if they worked in a more pleasant place. That would provide a skewed sense of the overall experience of cardiologists.”
Those issues might not be a concern with the current survey, however, “because the results are consistent with other studies with higher response rates.”
Year accompanying editorial says Sharm and colleagues have provided “a sobering report on the global prevalence and potential contributors to mental health concerns” in the surveyed population.
Based on its lessons, Andrew J. Sauer, MD, Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute, Kansas City, Missouri, proposes several potential “interventions” the field could enact.
It could “selectively promote leaders who strive to mitigate implicit bias, discrimination, and harassment while advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion within the broad ranks of cardiologists.”
Also, he continues, “we must eliminate the stigma of mental illness among physicians. We need to handle mental health concerns with compassion and without blaming, like how we strive to treat our veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Lastly, Sauer writes, “mentorship programs should be formalized to assist the cardiologist in transition zones from early to mid-career, with particular attention to women and those experiencing a simultaneously increased load of family burdens that compound existing workplace contributors to burnout and psychological distress .”
Years in Practice
Of the cardiologists who responded to the survey’s mental health questions, 28% reported they have experienced mental health issues that could include alcohol/drug use disorder, suicidal tendencies, psychological distress (including anxiety, irritability, or anger), “other psychiatric disorders” (such as panic disorderposttraumatic stress, or eating disorders) or major psychiatric disorders such as major depression, bipolar disordergold schizophrenia.
Cardiologists with 5 to 10 years of practice post-training were more likely than cardiologists practicing for at least 20 years to have mental health concerns (31.9% vs 22.6%, P < .001).
Mental health concerns were cited by 42% of respondents who cited “any type of discrimination” based on age, sex, race or ethnicity, or sexual orientation, the report notes.
Among those reporting any mental health concern, 2.7% considered suicide within the past year and 2.9% considered suicide more than 12 months previously. Women were more likely than men to consider suicide within the past year (3.8% vs 2.3%) but were also more likely to seek help (42.3% vs 31.1%; P < .001 for both differences), the authors write.
In multivariate analysis, predictors of mental health concerns and their odds ratios included:
Emotional harassment, 2.81 (95% CI, 2.46-3.20)
Any discrimination, 1.85 (95% CI, 1.61-2.12)
Being divorced, 1.73 (95% CI, 1.26-2.36)
Age < 55 years, 1.43 (95% CI, 1.24-1.66)
Mid-career (vs. late career), 1.36 (95% CI, 1.14-1.62)
Because the survey was conducted from September to October 2019, before the pandemic’s traumatic effects unfolded on healthcare nearly everywhere, “I think there needs to be a follow-up at some point when everything has leveled out,” Sharma said. The current study is “a baseline, and not a healthy baseline,” for the field’s state of mental health that has likely grown worse during the pandemic.
But even without such a follow-up, the current study “is actionable enough that it forces us to do something about it right now.”
Sharma, Mehta, their coauthors, Sen, and Sauer reported no relevant disclosures.
Follow Steve Stiles on Twitter: @SteveStiles2.