The effects of acute stress on performance: implications for health professions education

Acad Med. 2009 Oct;84(10 Suppl):S25-33. doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e3181b37b8f.


Purpose: This paper is a review of representative research on the impact of acute stressors on the clinical performance of individuals and teams.

Method: The Sciences Citation Index, Medline, and Psychinfo were used to search for articles up to and including 2008. The search terms were stress/tension/arousal/anxiety/cortisol/threat, cognition/skills/memory/attention/problem solving/decision making/performance, stress reduction/stress exposure/stress management/stress inoculation, and health professionals/medicine/medical students/residents/physicians/teams. The search was limited to papers in English from all developed countries. Secondary references were selected from primary papers.

Results: Elevated stress levels can impede performance on tasks that require divided attention, working memory, retrieval of information from memory, and decision making. These effects appear to be determined by the individual's appraisal of the demands and resources of a situation, the relationship between the stressor and the task, and factors such as coping styles, locus of control, and social supports.

Conclusions: Given the potential negative impact of stress on performance, and the individualistic way in which people respond, medical educators might want to consider avenues for training learners in stress management. More research is needed to fully understand the contributions of personal factors such as coping style and locus of control, as well as the relationship of perceptions of stress to issues such as fatigue.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Clinical Competence / standards*
  • Educational Measurement*
  • Health Personnel / education*
  • Humans
  • Stress, Psychological*