Background: Paramedics face many stressors in their work environment. Studies have shown that stress can have a negative effect on the psychological well-being of health professionals. However, there is little published research regarding the effects of stress on the cognitive skills necessary for optimal patient care.
Objectives: The primary purpose of this study was to investigate the effects of acute stress on the emotional response and performance of paramedics. Furthermore, the authors explored whether a paramedic's level of training or years of experience would mediate the effects of stress on performance.
Methods: Paramedic performances in calculating drug dosages were compared in two stress conditions. In the low-stress condition, 30 paramedics calculated the drug dosages in a quiet classroom free of any stressor. In the high-stress condition, the same paramedics calculated comparable drug dosages immediately after working through a challenging scenario with a human patient simulator.
Results: The paramedics obtained lower accuracy scores in the high-stress condition than in the low-stress condition [43% (95% confidence interval [CI]: 36.9-49.2) vs. 58% (95% CI: 48.6-67.1), p < 0.01 based on univariate analysis]. Neither work experience nor level of training predicted the individual differences in the stress-induced performance decrements.
Conclusion: These results suggest that the types of stressors encountered in clinical situations can increase medical errors, even in highly experienced individuals. These findings underline the need for more research to determine the mechanisms by which stress influences clinical performance, with the ultimate goal of targeting education or technologic interventions to those tasks, situations, and individuals most likely to benefit from such interventions.