A qualitative investigation of the impact of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) on emergency physicians' emotional experiences and coping strategies

J Am Coll Emerg Physicians Open. 2021 Oct 27;2(5):e12578. doi: 10.1002/emp2.12578. eCollection 2021 Oct.


Study objective: Throughout the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, emergency physicians in the United States have faced unprecedented challenges, risks, and uncertainty while caring for patients in an already vulnerable healthcare system. As such, the pandemic has exacerbated high levels of negative emotions and burnout among emergency physicians, but little systematic qualitative work has documented these phenomena. The purpose of this qualitative investigation was to study emergency physicians' emotional experiences in response to COVID-19 and the coping strategies that they employed to navigate the pandemic.

Methods: From September 2020 to February 2021, we conducted semistructured interviews with 26 emergency physicians recruited from 2 early COVID-19 epicenters: New York City and the Metro Boston region. Interviews, coding, and analyses were conducted using a grounded theory approach.

Results: Emergency physicians reported heightened anxiety, empathy, sadness, frustration, and anger during the pandemic. Physicians frequently attributed feelings of anxiety to medical uncertainty around the COVID-19 virus, personal risk of contracting the virus and transmitting it to family members, the emergency environment, and resource availability. Emergency physicians also discussed the emotional effects of policies prohibiting patients' family members from entering the emergency department (ED), both on themselves and patients. Sources of physician anger and frustration included changing policies and rules, hospital leadership and administration, and pay cuts. Some physicians described an evolving, ongoing coping process in response to the pandemic, and most identified collective discussion and processing within the emergency medicine community as an effective coping strategy.

Conclusions: Our findings underscore the need to investigate the effects of physicians' pandemic-related emotional stress and burnout on patient care. Evidence-based interventions to support emergency physicians in coping with pandemic-related trauma are needed.

Keywords: COVID‐19 pandemic; coping behavior; emergency departments; emergency medicine; emotions; qualitative research.