Trauma Patients at High Risk for Later Social Dysfunction

By Lisa Rapaport

June 14, 2019

(Reuters Health) - Nearly half of trauma patients experience social deficits that make it harder for them to interact with friends and stay involved in the community, a recent study suggests.

Dr. Juan Herrera-Escobar of Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston and colleagues followed 805 adults hospitalized for moderate to severe traumatic injuries.

The researchers assessed social function 6 months and 12 months after the injuries. Each time, they asked patients how often physical or emotional challenges interfered with social activities in the previous four weeks.

During the year after the injury, 364 patients, or 45%, reported experiencing social dysfunction, the authors reported May 17 in Surgery.

Compared to patients who reported no social dysfunction, those who did tended to be younger and were more likely to be African American and have no more than a high school education. Patients with social dysfunction were also more likely to have had longer hospital stays, required mechanical ventilation in the hospital and have previous psychiatric illness.

People with a history of a major psychiatric illness, for example, were almost three times more likely to experience social dysfunction. Low education, meanwhile, more than doubled the risk of social dysfunction.

In addition, people with social dysfunction were over 16 times more likely to have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than those without social dysfunction, and about five and a half times more likely to have not returned to work after their accident.

It's possible that people with lots of social support from family and friends or from patient support groups might have fewer challenges with social dysfunction after their injuries, Herrera-Escobar said by email.

"A strong family environment fosters resilience, which has been associated with better long-term outcomes after trauma," Herrera-Escobar added. "We also believe that getting appropriate and timely treatments (rehabilitation, mental health services, etc.) for physical and mental health conditions can also help improve their social outcomes."

The study lacked data on social functioning before patients' injuries, and it's possible that some people had impairments beforehand, the study team notes.

Even so, the results underscore the importance of considering social function in trauma care from the start instead of waiting to address this until after patients go home from the hospital, said Dr. Tim Platts-Mills, an emergency medicine researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who wasn't involved in the study.

Pain management and treating people for depression, PTSD and other psychiatric issues may help minimize the social dysfunction, Platt-Mills said by email.

"The best approach is not to wait six weeks and then conclude that there is a problem," Platt-Mills said. "A better approach is to work with the patient's clinical team to try to address these problems early on."


Surgery 2019.