Tweets showed increasing loneliness among emergency medicine doctors during COVID-19

A new study from Penn Medicine finds a steady increase in expressions of loneliness and depression as the pandemic continued.

Expressions of loneliness and depression from emergency medicine doctors increased consistently on social media as the COVID-19 pandemic wore on, according to a new JAMA Network Open study by researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Using artificial intelligence to process Twitter posts from nearly 500 emergency medicine (EM) physicians, the study team found that mentions of these feelings—along with anxiety and anger—went from relatively rare before the pandemic to common after COVID-19 became widespread in the United States in March 2020.

An ER doctor in full PPE rests on the floor alone.
Image: iStock/Sviatlana Lazarenka

“The consistent and real rise of loneliness among emergency medicine physicians was shocking, and I’d hypothesize that this may have been true across medicine at large,” says co-lead author Anish Agarwal, the chief wellness officer for emergency medicine and deputy director for the Penn Medicine Center for Digital Health. “The surgeon general recently highlighted an epidemic of loneliness in America, and this seems to really indicate that it doesn’t spare health care workers. If anything, this issue has been potentially worse within medicine and, in a field so affected by burnout and emotional strain, we believe this gives us another lens to explore these problems in the future.”

Amid the worst of COVID-19, many physicians, particularly those on the front lines in emergency departments, opened up on social media about what they were seeing every day. At a time when there was some mystery—and disinformation—about a disease circling the globe, physicians became more prominent online.

Agarwal, co-lead author Sharath Guntuku, an assistant professor of computer and information science and a senior fellow in the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics at Penn, and their fellow researchers used machine learning techniques to assess themes and specific language relating to emotions in the public tweets of emergency medicine physicians, stretching from 2018 to 2022.

Agarwal and Guntuku’s study showed that negative emotions and themes were expressed much more often amid the pandemic, and positive themes took a significant dive. The expressions of loneliness in physician tweets increased by as much as 17% during the two years of COVID-19 pandemic they analyzed, compared to the two years prior. Similar increases were observed with expressions of anger and anxiety, though they reverted roughly toward pre-pandemic levels eventually. Loneliness and depression appeared to have remained elevated at the end of the study’s observed time period, though they weren’t quite at their peaks.

This story is by Frank Otto. Read more at Penn Medicine News.