A new blood test could identify healthcare professionals who are experiencing high levels of work-related stress and anxiety, according to research presented at the 2021 AACC Annual Scientific Meeting & Clinical Lab Expo in Atlanta. As COVID-19 cases surge, this test could play a critical role in helping healthcare professionals on the frontlines of the pandemic to get essential mental health support.

As the Delta variant of the coronavirus spreads, healthcare professionals are finding themselves grappling with a flood of COVID-19 patients and the challenges this entails. Many healthcare professionals are still struggling with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder from the pandemic’s earlier phases. Thousands of healthcare professionals have left the field as a result of the pandemic, causing chronic staffing shortages and a sharp increase in working hours for those who remain. These factors can impact both healthcare professionals’ mental welfare, as well as the quality of care that patients receive for both COVID-19 and more routine illnesses. 

A blood test for occupational stress could help hospitals improve healthcare professionals’ access to mental health support by making it easier to identify those who need mental health treatment. In an effort to find a biomarker that could be used for such a test, a team of researchers led by Hala Demerdash, PhD, of Alexandria University Hospitals in Egypt, set out to determine if blood levels of copeptin correlate with psychological stress. Copeptin is part of a precursor to the hormone arginine vasopressin (which is released in response to stress) that is more stable than the hormone itself. The researchers measured blood copeptin levels in 70 physicians and nurses who were treating COVID-19 patients in the ICU, and also gave the participants a psychological stress questionnaire at the same timepoints when their copeptin levels were measured.

From this, the researchers found that there was a positive correlation between blood copeptin levels and study participants’ stress questionnaire scores. Participants worked in the ICU for two weeks, followed by two weeks of isolation at home. Researchers discovered that participants were at their most stressed right before they went into the ICU due to anticipatory anxiety, with mean blood copeptin levels of 15.67 ± 8.6 pmol/L and mean stress questionnaire scores of 66.9 ± 18.3. Then after isolating at home for two weeks, their mean copeptin levels and questionnaire scores both dropped markedly to 3.98 ± 1.28 pmol/L and 23.0 ± 7.95, respectively. 

“Before we began this study, we observed that the healthcare providers who were going to be enrolled in the ICU were suffering anxiety problems,” Demerdash says. “Some were even trying to find excuses to postpone their shifts. Therefore, I decided, why not measure stress hormones and correlate them with stress questionnaire scores and the providers’ degree of anxiety. From this, I found that copeptin was significantly elevated in healthcare providers before they went into the ICU and that copeptin may be used as a potential biomarker for physiological strain during work in a stressful environment.”