Balancing ethics with empathy


My patients and their families have never been more anxious. In the pediatric ED where I practice, everyone is on edge. The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the feelings of anxious anticipation and uncertainty that families have when they bring their child to the ED. People are scared that their children have the virus or that they will contract it in this high-risk environment. Both are reasonable fears. As a doctor, it has never been more difficult for me to lessen that anxiety.

Dr. Joseph Shapiro

Dr. Joseph Shapiro

Every doctor has a version of an interpersonal toolkit they use to project confidence, maintain calm, and convey empathy. Parts of it are taught in medical school, but most components are learned by trial and error. For me, it starts with speaking clearly and directly. If I can do this successfully, it allows parents to understand my recommendations and feel comfortable with my expertise. But words alone are rarely enough to gain trust. For most people, trusting a doctor requires believing that the physician is empathetic and invested in their care or the care of their loved one.

My experience is that, in the short, high-intensity interactions of the ED, this often has to be achieved with body language and facial expressions. We use so many little movements in interactions with patients: a knowing smile, kind eyes, a timely frown, open arms. These gestures would typically show parents I understand how they feel, and I am invested in the health of their child. Hidden behind my mask, face shield, gown, and gloves, I remain a black box. I dispense advice but struggle to convey that it comes from someone who cares.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I would skirt the rules of personal protective equipment (PPE) usage to try and get a moment of human connection. I might appear in the doorway of a patient’s room, smile, and introduce myself before putting on my mask and goggles. If a parent seemed to expect a firm handshake, I would give one, careful to wash my hands before and after. As the guidelines around PPE usage have become more consistent and the danger of the virus increasingly evident, I have cut out these little indulgences. I wear a mask and eye protection from the moment I enter the ED until I leave. I touch as few patients as possible and generally stand 6 feet or more from everyone I talk to.

I believe most providers would agree; these precautions are the only ethical way to see patients during the pandemic. Patients and families are entitled to health care workers who are doing everything they can to protect themselves and those around them. As long as the pandemic lasts, patients and providers will need to recalibrate their expectations of interpersonal interactions. For the time being, good doctors might be defined as much by their PPE adherence as by their ability to connect with patients.

Dr. Shapiro is a clinical instructor of pediatrics at the George Washington University and a clinical associate in the division of emergency medicine at Children’s National Hospital, both in Washington. He said he had no relevant financial disclosures. Email Dr. Shapiro at [email protected]

Next Article:

   Comments ()