By Omar Mahboob BMSc and Elysée Nouvet PhD

On April 25, 2020, John Mondello, a recently graduated Emergency Medical Technician stationed in New York City, died by suicide. Mondello was on the front lines of the COVID-19 response as the city faced an overwhelming number of cases and fatalities. Prior to passing, Mondello had described experiencing anxiety to his friends and colleagues, which he attributed to the high call volume, and the witnessing of so much death (1). 

As many countries begin re-opening from their lockdowns, and cases are once again projected to rise, it is imperative to understand the experiences of front-line workers providing care. Over the past month, a team of researchers from Western University, the University of Turin, and McMaster University have been speaking with individuals on the front lines of the pandemic response across the globe. The larger purpose of the study is to: elucidate plans for and concerns related to the provision of care to patients at risk of dying, should critical care needs outweigh available resources;  to discern if and how such triage guidance should be communicated to affected populations; and, identify key social and cultural considerations for this communication and for the provision of care to the critically ill during this pandemic. Although we are in the primary stages of our analysis, and it is too early to make decisive statements on our findings, one thing is clear: many of the participants have described their own stress or expressed concerns regarding the psychological impact associated with being on the front lines during this pandemic. 

Even from the relative comfort of our homes, it is not difficult to imagine why that would be the case. With so many patients in need, hours have been longer than usual for many healthcare workers. The atmosphere is tense as stakes are high: for patients, for providers, for healthcare facilities, for governments and communities. In high-income countries, most have never witnessed so many deaths in such a short time period. Watching patients come in, grow sicker, and in some cases even die without family present feels bad. Personal protective equipment is limited in many contexts. This means that with every shift comes a risk of infection, and passing on that infection to loved ones at home (or sacrificing time with family to limit their exposure and keep them safe). Countless news reports, especially out of Italy in March of this year, and then New York City in April, have recounted the heavy and sometimes psychologically shattering decisions faced by front line providers confronting critical care resource shortages. The need to decide or implement decisions that involve denying potentially life-saving interventions to some patients is not an experience many have faced in our study, but it is one they can imagine and dread. Patient prioritization decision-making, where needs outweigh resources, presents a particular risk of moral injury. 

Moral injury is a term defined by Litz et al. (2009) as an experience that encompasses the following: “[p]erpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to, or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations” (2). Although the term was first applied in a military context, extending its use to this pandemic can provide valuable insight into the potential concerns embedded within triage decision-making processes.

In a healthcare setting, this suggests that those involved in or witness to the prioritization of certain patients for treatment, to the exclusion of others whom they believe could benefit, are at an increased risk of moral injury. Allocation of limited resources, such as nursing staff and ICU-care for COVID-19 patients, has been and continues to be a reality in many localities. For critically ill patients, access to immediate medical attention and/or ventilator care can be the difference between life and death. Although some organizations and experts have released guidance on who has priority for a ventilator if and when the need surpasses capacity (3), guidance does not release healthcare teams at the bedside from the burden of ultimate decision-making and action.  Beyond the bedside, there is the impact on the patient and their family. The moral implications and potentially injurious consequences of making or being a party to such decisions is a reality for many health care workers on the front lines of this crisis. A May 13 2020 WHO report on the mental health impacts of COVID-19 cites studies in Canada, China, and Pakistan confirming increased self-reported depression, anxiety, insomnia, and psychological needs (4).

Across the globe, communities are showing their appreciation for health care workers on the front lines. Through the blaring of horns, the clapping and banging of pots and pans, the message is unmistakable; many are willing to stand with and for those who are risking their lives on the front lines. These gestures are important; however, they are not enough. Understanding how the provision of care during this pandemic affects different health care providers and investing in ongoing psychological support must also be prioritized. 

References:

  1. Edelman S, Moore T, Narizhnaya K, Balsamini D. EMT John Mondello kills himself after less than three months on the job [Internet]. New York Post. 2020 [cited 2020 May 20]. Available from: https://nypost.com/2020/04/25/nyc-emt-commits-suicide-with-gun-belonging-to-his-dad/ 
  2. Litz BT, Stein N, Delaney E, Lebowitz L, Nash WP, Silva C, et al. Moral injury and moral repair in war veterans: A preliminary model and intervention strategy. Clinical Psychology Review. 2009 Dec;29(8):695–706.
  3. Emanuel EJ, Persad G, Upshur R, Thome B, Parker M, Glickman A, et al. Fair Allocation of Scarce Medical Resources in the Time of Covid-19. N Engl J Med [Internet]. 2020 Mar 23 [cited 2020 May 20]; Available from: https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMsb2005114
  4. United Nations. Policy Brief: COVID-19 and the Need for Action on Mental Health [Internet]. 2020. Available from: https://www.un.org/sites/un2.un.org/files/un_policy_brief-covid_and_mental_health_final.pdf

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Omar Mahboob completed a BMSc in Interdisciplinary Medical Sciences from the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry at Western University. He is a research assistant with the Humanitarian Health Ethics research group.

Dr. Elysée Nouvet is a medical anthropologist and assistant professor in the School of Health Studies at the University of Western Ontario, Canada. She has a particular interest in the moral experiences and ethics of care and research in humanitarian and public health emergencies.

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