Objective: To determine, using the perspective of a hospital-based palliative care service (PCS), the spiritual and psychosocial impact of a novel and potentially fatal viral epidemic on patients, their families and health care workers.
Design: Qualitative study using semi-structured interviews. The data were analysed using the constant comparative method and were validated using respondent validation.
Participants: Eight palliative care workers.
Setting: Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH), the hospital designated to manage all cases of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in Singapore.
Results: Disease containment resulted in isolation, where isolation meant the disruption of connectedness. This disruption of connectedness took place at multiple levels: in the patient himself, between the patient and the family, within the family, between the patient and the health care worker, between the patient and society, and between health care workers. As the nature of the disease was uncertain, prognostication was inaccurate. This created difficulties in helping patients and their families prepare for death. The fear of facing the unknown led to safety-seeking behaviours, which could be overcome by repeated exposure to the feared situation. The process of bereavement was disturbed, as traditional death rituals could not be performed by the family. Informants perceived themselves to be suffering as they suffered the same anxieties, fears and grief as the patient.
Conclusions: Dealing with a novel viral epidemic creates spiritual and psychosocial issues similar to those encountered in a palliative care practice. Palliative care workers would do well to be aware of such issues and act proactively when such epidemics arise.