A national study of moral distress among U.S. internal medicine physicians during the COVID-19 pandemic
Jeffrey Sonis, Donald E. Pathman, Susan Read, Bradley N. Gaynes
Background: There have been no studies to date of moral distress during the COVID-19 pandemic in national samples of U.S. health workers. The purpose of this study was to determine, in a national sample of internal medicine physicians (internists) in the U.S.: 1) the intensity of moral distress; 2) the predictors of moral distress; 3) the outcomes of moral distress. Methods: We conducted a national survey with an online panel of internists, representative of the membership of the American College of Physicians, the largest specialty organization of physicians in the United States, between September 21 and October 8, 2020. Moral distress was measured with the Moral Distress Thermometer, a one-item scale with a range of 0 (“none”) to 10 (“worst possible”). Outcomes were measured with short screening scales. Results: The response rate was 37.8% (N = 810). Moral distress intensity was low (mean score = 2.4, 95% CI, 2.2–2.6); however, 13.3% (95% CI, 12.1% – 14.5%) had a moral distress score greater than or equal to 6 (“distressing”). In multiple linear regression models, perceived risk of death if infected with COVID-19 was the strongest predictor of higher moral distress (β (standardized regression coefficient) = 0.26, p < .001), and higher perceived organizational support (respondent belief that their health organization valued them) was most strongly associated with lower moral distress (β = -0.22, p < .001). Controlling for other factors, high levels of moral distress, but not low levels, were strongly associated (adjusted odds ratios 3.0 to 11.5) with screening positive for anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, burnout, and intention to leave patient care. Conclusions: The intensity of moral distress among U.S. internists was low overall. However, the 13% with high levels of moral distress had very high odds of adverse mental health outcomes. Organizational support may lower moral distress and thereby prevent adverse mental health outcomes.