Humans not heroes: Canadian emergency physician experiences during the early COVID-19 pandemic

Emerg Med J. 2023 Feb;40(2):86-91. doi: 10.1136/emermed-2022-212466. Epub 2022 Oct 17.


Background: The pandemic has upended much clinical care, irrevocably changing our health systems and thrusting emergency physicians into a time of great uncertainty and change. This study is a follow-up to a survey that examined the early pandemic experience among Canadian emergency physicians and aimed to qualitatively describe the experiences of these physicians during the global pandemic. The study was conducted at a time when Canadian COVID-19 case numbers were low.

Methods: The investigators engaged in an interview-based study that used an interpretive description analytic technique, sensitised by the principles of phenomenology. One-to-one interviews were conducted, transcribed and then analysed to establish a codebook, which was subsequently grouped into key themes. Results underwent source triangulation (with survey data from a similar period) and investigator-driven audit trail analysis.

Results: A total of 16 interviews (11 female, 5 male) were conducted between May and September 2020. The isolated themes on emergency physicians' experiences during the early pandemic included: (1) disruption and loss of emergency department shift work; (2) stress of COVID-19 uncertainty and information bombardment; (3) increased team bonding; (4) greater personal life stress; (5) concern for patients' isolation, miscommunication and disconnection from care; (6) emotional distress.

Conclusions: Canadian emergency physicians experienced emotional and psychological distress during the early COVID-19 pandemic, at a time when COVID-19 prevalence was low. This study's findings could guide future interventions to protect emergency physicians against pandemic-related distress.

Keywords: COVID-19; emergency departments; global health; patient support.

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19* / epidemiology
  • Canada / epidemiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pandemics
  • Physicians* / psychology
  • SARS-CoV-2