Headlines & headaches: Recent political events have major impact on doctors’ moods, study finds

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Do political news, events, or developments that don’t gel with your own world views affect your mood or ruin your day?

Politics in the United States have felt contentious, to say the least, over the past four years or so. As such, it appears many Americans tend to get very bent out of shape over political happenings they don’t support. In an effort to analyze and better understand how modern adults are dealing with the current political climate, researchers at the University of Michigan studied the mood swings of a group of first-year doctors following recent political events. They discovered that these doctors, a group of people who are usually fully engrossed in their challenging profession, experienced significant changes in mood in response to the events and subsequent headlines.

Young, first year doctors, also known as interns, have an extremely tough schedule. An 80-hour work week or full 24-hour shift is business as usual for novice doctors just getting started in the medical field. Politics notwithstanding, most first-year doctors are dealing with a great deal of stress to begin with. Remarkably, researchers discovered that certain political events brought on the same levels of stress and influenced their moods just as much as the first few weeks of their training had.

Researchers also looked to see if the young doctors were similarly affected by major non-political news, but found no mood swings in response to such events.

The study focused on a group of 2,345 interns who were in their first year of hospital training anytime between mid-2016 and late 2018. Each participating intern was asked to give a daily mood rating.

Three major political events, the 2016 election, the 2017 presidential inauguration, and the cancellation of a federal spending bill to fund a Mexican border wall, resulted in the most prominent mood swings among interns. The results of the 2016 election actually had a more negative effect on many of the interns’ moods than their first week of intense training had induced. The inauguration also put many, many interns in a worse mood, while news of the border wall funding being impeded resulted in a significant positive mood boost among interns.

Regarding the results of the 2016 election, the study’s authors noted that the decline in mood among young doctors immediately afterwards was four times greater than any other day. Female doctors were more affected than male doctors; their combined mood drop was twice as large in comparison to their male counterparts.

Overall, two-thirds of the major political events that occurred over the course of the study caused significant changes in the interns’ moods. None of the non-political events, which encompassed mass shootings, a solar eclipse, a royal wedding, wildfires, and hurricanes, led to changes in the young doctors’ moods.

“This suggests to us that interns were deeply engaged with and affected by the election, even while facing the incredible demands of their intern year,” says Elena Frank, Ph.D., the director of the Intern Health Study, in a release. “It also suggests that the 2016 election was experienced as deeply personal and distressing for many young women in medicine.”

All of the interns were asked to describe their mood each evening via smartphone app, and then that data was cross-referenced with national Google search information regarding the most searched-for news items during the study’s duration.

“The new generation of physicians seems to be more politically engaged than how doctors had traditionally been seen,” says co-author Dr. Srijan Sen. “This suggests that there is a real opportunity for physicians to lend their voice and join the discussion on issues relevant to clinicians and their patients.”

The research team theorize that this seeming increase in political awareness and sensitivity in new doctors may be connected to more women, people of color, and individuals from poorer socio-economic backgrounds entering the medical field than in decades past.

These results also beg another nagging question: If first-year doctors in the midst of an intense training schedule are influenced to this degree by political news, just how much is the average American with a more relaxed schedule being affected?

The study is published in BMJ.