The immediate psychological and occupational impact of the 2003 SARS outbreak in a teaching hospital

CMAJ. 2003 May 13;168(10):1245-51.


Background: The outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in Toronto, which began on Mar. 7, 2003, resulted in extraordinary public health and infection control measures. We aimed to describe the psychological and occupational impact of this event within a large hospital in the first 4 weeks of the outbreak and the subsequent administrative and mental health response.

Methods: Two principal authors met with core team members and mental health care providers at Mount Sinai Hospital, Toronto, to compile retrospectively descriptions of the experiences of staff and patients based on informal observation. All authors reviewed and analyzed the descriptions in an iterative process between Apr. 3 and Apr. 13, 2003.

Results: In a 4-week period, 19 individuals developed SARS, including 11 health care workers. The hospital's response included establishing a leadership command team and a SARS isolation unit, implementing mental health support interventions for patients and staff, overcoming problems with logistics and communication, and overcoming resistance to directives. Patients with SARS reported fear, loneliness, boredom and anger, and they worried about the effects of quarantine and contagion on family members and friends. They experienced anxiety about fever and the effects of insomnia. Staff were adversely affected by fear of contagion and of infecting family, friends and colleagues. Caring for health care workers as patients and colleagues was emotionally difficult. Uncertainty and stigmatization were prominent themes for both staff and patients.

Interpretation: The hospital's response required clear communication, sensitivity to individual responses to stress, collaboration between disciplines, authoritative leadership and provision of relevant support. The emotional and behavioural reactions of patients and staff are understood to be a normal, adaptive response to stress in the face of an overwhelming event.

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Antiviral Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Cross Infection / epidemiology
  • Cross Infection / psychology
  • Cross Infection / therapy
  • Disease Outbreaks / prevention & control
  • Drug Therapy, Combination
  • Health Personnel / psychology*
  • Hospitalization
  • Hospitals, Teaching*
  • Humans
  • Mass Screening
  • Occupational Diseases / etiology*
  • Ribavirin / therapeutic use*
  • Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome / epidemiology
  • Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome / psychology*
  • Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome / therapy*
  • Social Support
  • Steroids
  • Stress, Psychological / epidemiology
  • Stress, Psychological / etiology*


  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents
  • Antiviral Agents
  • Steroids
  • Ribavirin