Healthcare providers on the frontlines: a qualitative investigation of the social and emotional impact of delivering health services during Sierra Leone's Ebola epidemic

Health Policy Plan. 2016 Nov;31(9):1232-9. doi: 10.1093/heapol/czw055. Epub 2016 Jun 8.


Although research on the epidemiology and ecology of Ebola has expanded since the 2014-15 outbreak in West Africa, less attention has been paid to the mental health implications and the psychosocial context of the disease for providers working in primary health facilities (rather than Ebola-specific treatment units). This study draws on 54 qualitative interviews with 35 providers working in eight peripheral health units of Sierra Leone's Bo and Kenema Districts. Data collection started near the height of the outbreak in December 2014 and lasted 1 month. Providers recounted changes in their professional, personal and social lives as they became de facto first responders in the outbreak. A theme articulated across interviews was Ebola's destruction of social connectedness and sense of trust within and across health facilities, communities and families. Providers described feeling lonely, ostracized, unloved, afraid, saddened and no longer respected. They also discussed restrictions on behaviors that enhance coping including attending burials and engaging in physical touch (hugging, handshaking, sitting near, or eating with colleagues, patients and family members). Providers described infection prevention measures as necessary but divisive because screening booths and protective equipment inhibited bonding or 'suffering with' patients. To mitigate psychiatric morbidities and maladaptive coping mechanisms-and to prevent the spread of Ebola-researchers and program planners must consider the psychosocial context of this disease and mechanisms to enhance psychological first aid to all health providers, including those in peripheral health settings.

Keywords: Ebola; Sierra Leone; frontline health workers; mental health and psychosocial support; qualitative research.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Delivery of Health Care / methods
  • Epidemics / prevention & control*
  • Fear
  • Female
  • Grounded Theory
  • Health Facilities
  • Health Personnel / psychology*
  • Hemorrhagic Fever, Ebola / epidemiology*
  • Humans
  • Infection Control / methods
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Male
  • Mental Health*
  • Middle Aged
  • Qualitative Research
  • Sierra Leone / epidemiology
  • Social Isolation / psychology*
  • Trust