What is it about?

The medical field can represent a challenge, not only in terms of workload and responsibility but also because it involves constant exposure to people who have experienced traumatic events. Some healthcare professionals come into contact with these patients in the first moments after the traumatic event. Therefore, they witness the direct effect of trauma on these patients, both physical and psychological. This exposure makes them vulnerable to secondary traumatic stress (STS), which could lead to symptoms such as intrusion, avoidance (of the situations, places, and people that remind them of their patients and their experiences), and arousal (Figley, 1995). At the same time, there are situations in which exposure to a traumatic event can also lead to positive changes in different aspects of life. These changes are known as vicarious posttraumatic growth (VPTG), and are a result of the adaptative efforts made by individuals to find meaning in their experiences (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2018). Although these phenomena are of interest to the medical field, the number of studies that have focused on the relationship between them in the case of healthcare professionals is relatively small, and even for the relatively small number of studies, the results were polarizing. Therefore, we wanted to use what is known in the literature to conclude the nature of the relationship between secondary traumatic stress and vicarious posttraumatic growth in healthcare professionals working in clinical settings, as well as other possible moderators. We have observed that there is a positive significant relationship between secondary traumatic stress and vicarious posttraumatic growth. However, even if there is a significant overall positive relationship between STS and VPTG, this was not observed for all healthcare professionals. Continuous exposure to traumatic events, as well as the necessity to interact with the patients and their families over a longer period and use a high level of empathy, could lead to a negative relationship. Regarding moderators for the relationship between STS and VPTG, some categories include the gender of the participants, years of experience, professional category, specialization, country, and the type of population under care.

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Why is it important?

These results show us that there are instances in which we can turn the impact of a traumatic event into an opportunity for growth. Along with prevention, it should be essential for organizations to offer their employees all the resources necessary to recognize early signs of the development of symptoms specific to secondary traumatic stress, understand them and know how they should process their feelings and emotions. Intervention programs should be accessible to everyone and tailored to match the characteristics of each group of professionals and their specializations. On that account, there should be an emphasis on offering support groups and education regarding these types of phenomena and which coping strategies are more appropriate for them to use. The organizations should also help healthcare professionals understand the positive effects that their implication brought to the patients and their families and the meaning behind their work and experiences, which could also lead to a higher level of job satisfaction.

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This page is a summary of: Secondary traumatic stress and vicarious posttraumatic growth in healthcare professionals: A meta-analysis., Clinical Psychology Science and Practice, July 2023, American Psychological Association (APA),
DOI: 10.1037/cps0000159.
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