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COVID toll requires empathy in ERs to flow both ways

A medical worker hustles with a wheelchair outside the emergency room at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston on April 27, 2020.Stan Grossfeld/ Globe Staff

In the article “Alarming COVID toll across Boston” (Page A1, Jan. 11), Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, director of the Boston Public Health Commission, noted that emergency department visits increased by 30 percent in the last week.

Emergency room medical staff are unique among clinicians in that they work at a more rapid pace and rarely have a prior relationship with their patients. Yet they hold critical leadership positions within a community because they most often hold the front door to health care.

Emergency rooms are bursting at the seams with COVID-19 cases, putting ER workers at risk for infection, which in turn would mean even fewer ER staff available to help. Staff also are suffering from mental and physical exhaustion, depression, moral injury, and increased suicidal ideation.


We know from research that empathy from clinicians can make an enormous difference to patients and families who feel anxious, vulnerable, and frightened. It is critical at this moment to recognize that ER staff also need empathy from patients and families.

Displaying patience and understanding toward health care providers can ease the burden of serving in an overloaded system. We are all in this together.

Dr. Helen Riess


The writer is an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, and founder of Empathetics Inc.