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Insomnia soars for health workers in pandemic, AU experts find

Published: Apr. 27, 2021 at 10:11 AM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) – The COVID pandemic appears to have triggered a 44 percent increase in insomnia disorder among health care workers who were studied by Augusta University researchers.

The highest rates were surprisingly among those who spent less time in direct patient care at the medical-school affiliated health system that was studied, investigators say.

Another surprise was that about 10 percent of those surveyed said their insomnia actually got better in the early months of the pandemic.

Still another surprise was the high reported insomnia rate among the group — 44.5 percent — before the pandemic.

Dr. Vaughn McCall, chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Health Behavior at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University, and colleagues reported the study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.

The results were revealed through surveys of 678 faculty physicians, nurses, advanced practice providers like nurse practitioners and physician assistants, as well as residents and fellows, at a tertiary urban hospital and its clinics.

AU reported that while McCall, an expert in insomnia, depression and suicide, expected the pandemic to affect workers’ sleep and rates of acute insomnia disorder to increase, the rate of the increase was still surprising: from 44.5 percent to 64 percent.

The clear impact of insomnia on health care workers overall implies that health care leaders need to be aware of the association, both in staff on the frontline and working from home, the investigators report.

The combination of insomnia and anxiety over COVID-19 represents a potent risk for suicidal ideation, they write, and the medium number of insomnia symptoms indicates that severity was “of clinical significance” to the workers.

Previous studies have looked at the impact of COVID on more common sleep problems in health care workers, but the new study looked at more defined and potentially problematic acute insomnia disorder. “Insomnia disorder is a patient complaint of poor sleep either in quantity or quality — it can be both — with daytime consequences of their poor sleep,” McCall says. “They suffer in the daytime because of the nighttime.”

In this case, reported consequences included fatigue, malaise, reduced initiative, even gastrointestinal problems.

More than half the individuals in the survey reported at least one core symptom of depression, while at least one anxiety symptom was reported by nearly 65 percent.

Insomnia disorder affects about 10 percent of the general population, and the acute insomnia disorder reported by health care workers is generally defined as a problem that stretches for weeks, while chronic insomnia disorder lingers for months or years. Acute insomnia may progress to a chronic disorder.

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