The Ripple Effect of Trauma in Medical Practice and How to Dampen the Wave

Posted on July 24, 2023 by Susan MacLellan-Tobert, MD, FAAC, ACC

Updated September 26, 2023

We know that medicine can take a toll on its practitioners. Beyond the stresses of deep concern for the well being and often the very lives of patients, contemporary medicine may involve overwork, time-consuming and complicated charting, bureaucratic tasks and more—including moral injury and trauma. 

Traumatic events such as medical errors, adverse patient outcomes, frightening emergencies among others can cause a “ripple effect,” in which traumatized physicians may pass on their anger and or dissociation to colleagues, patients and others close in their lives.

In my wide-ranging essay on this rippling trauma and how we can confront it, I outline that while the factors contributing to burnout have been studied in some depth, trauma and its spread haven’t been given the same amount of attention. Traumatic experience can contribute to burnout, you don’t need to be traumatized to burn out due to, for example, overwork and a sense of the loss of autonomy.

Looking squarely at the ripple effect and its dangers, I’m calling for nothing less than a revolution of compassion for healthcare workers. There are two unique frames of reference we can use to do so—a revised version of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, focused on the needs of medical professionals; and the idea that most human beings have a wide circle of influence. 

Providing physicians with what they need to survive and thrive as physicians and human beings can begin with simple acts of affirmation and support from colleagues and leadership. As more and more healthcare workers support each other in these simple ways, I see the possibility of a positive “reverse ripple effect” of understanding and compassion moving outward and eventually making medicine less of a burden upon those who practice it.

Read my essay, The Ripple Effect of Trauma in Medical Practice and How to Dampen the Wave, here.

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