“I need to get out of here! I haven’t gotten any sleep, my medications never come on time, and I feel like a pincushion. I am leaving NOW!” The commotion interrupts your intern’s meticulous presentation as your team quickly files into the room. You find a disheveled, visibly frustrated man tearing at his intravenous line, surrounded by his half-eaten breakfast and multiple urinals filled to various levels. His IV pump is beeping, and telemetry wires hang haphazardly off his chest.
Mr. Smith had been admitted for a heart failure exacerbation. You’d been making steady progress with diuresis but are now faced with a likely discharge against medical advice if you can’t defuse the situation.
As hospitalists, this scenario might feel eerily familiar. Perhaps Mr. Smith had enough of being in the hospital and just wanted to go home to see his dog, or maybe the food was not up to his standards.
However, his next line stops your team dead in its tracks. “I feel like I am in Vietnam all over again. I am tied up with all these wires and feel like a prisoner! Please let me go.” It turns out that Mr. Smith had a comorbidity that was overlooked during his initial intake: posttraumatic stress disorder.
Impact of PTSD
PTSD is a diagnosis characterized by intrusive recurrent thoughts, dreams, or flashbacks that follow exposure to a traumatic event or series of events (see Table 1). While more common among veterans (for example, Vietnam veterans have an estimated lifetime prevalence of PTSD of 30.9% for men and 26.9% for women),1 a national survey of U.S. households estimated the lifetime prevalence of PTSD among adult Americans to be 6.8%.2 PTSD is often underdiagnosed and underreported by patients in the outpatient setting, leading to underrecognition and undertreatment of these patients in the inpatient setting.
Although it may not be surprising that patients with PTSD use more mental health services, they are also more likely to use nonmental health services. In one study, total utilization of outpatient nonmental health services was 91% greater in veterans with PTSD, and these patients were three times more likely to be hospitalized than those without any mental health diagnoses.3 Additionally, they are likely to present later and stay longer when compared with patients without PTSD. One study estimated the cost of PTSD-related hospitalization in the United States from 2002 to 2011 as being $34.9 billion.4 Notably, close to 95% of hospitalizations in this study listed PTSD as a secondary rather than primary diagnosis, suggesting that the vast majority of these admitted patients are cared for by frontline providers who are not trained mental health professionals.
How PTSD manifests in the hospital
But, how exactly can the hospital environment contribute to decompensation of PTSD symptoms? Unfortunately, there is little empiric data to guide us. Based on what we do know of PTSD, we offer the following hypotheses.