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Emergency-room physicians are treating a new wave of gun-trauma patients while still dealing with COVID burnout

INSIDER logo INSIDER 7/21/2021 horecchio@businessinsider.com (Haven Orecchio-Egresitz)
a man talking on a cell phone: Emergency-room physicians already burned out from more than a year treating COVID-19 cases are dealing with a fresh wave of trauma patients amid rising gun violence. Getty Images © Getty Images Emergency-room physicians already burned out from more than a year treating COVID-19 cases are dealing with a fresh wave of trauma patients amid rising gun violence. Getty Images
  • Exhausted emergency-room providers are now dealing with the fallout from rising gun violence.
  • One physician told Insider he'd seen a 40% rise in gunshot victims in the ER compared with 2020.
  • The increase in gun violence comes with hospitals struggling to maintain adequate staffing.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

For more than a year, emergency-room staff members were barely able to catch a breath or scarf down dinner while treating patient after patient who rolled through the doors on the edge of death with COVID-19.

Now that serious cases of the disease are on the decline, these frontline workers are triaging another wave of patients - many of them younger and otherwise healthier - whose bodies are pierced with bullets.

Dr. Steven Mitchell, the medical director of the emergency department at Seattle's Harborview Medical Center, told Insider that so far this year the hospital had seen a 40% increase in the number of gunshot victims coming into the ER compared with 2020.

"We had been in a downward shift for the last few years," Mitchell said of the hospital's intake of gunshot victims. "Beginning in April, we have seen a clear trend where each month we have exceeded the previous few years in the number of cases that arrive in our emergency department from gun violence."

In the past year, cities across the US have seen a significant increase in homicides and gun violence, the rarest forms of violent crime, even as rates of other crimes remain stable or are decreasing.

Emergency-room physicians have a front-row seat to the surge, and treating gunshot wounds is taking a toll on them.

Mitchell said the increase in gun violence came with hospitals already struggling to maintain adequate staffing.

Nurses and care staff took leaves of absence or left for new jobs because of the strain that the pandemic took on them, leaving emergency rooms with fewer workers to treat an increasing number of gunshot victims.

"Most of our nurses, when they are on their days off, they wake up to a page in the morning saying, 'Hey, can you please come in to work overtime?' And you can only do so much of that," Mitchell said. "That's happening all throughout our state, as well as at my hospital."

a blurry photo of a brick building: Homicides and gun violence spiked across the US in 2020 and early 2021. AP Photo/John Minchillo, File © AP Photo/John Minchillo, File Homicides and gun violence spiked across the US in 2020 and early 2021. AP Photo/John Minchillo, File

ERs that saw a wave of Black and brown COVID-19 patients are now seeing gunshot victims from those communities

Dr. Cedric Dark, a Houston emergency-room physician who is a member of the Baylor College of Medicine faculty, told Insider the number of patients being treated for COVID-19 in his department was slowly decreasing at the same time as more gunshot victims were entering the ER.

"I like to think of gun violence as to two different types of diseases," Dark said. "Black and Hispanic - urban - that's largely interpersonal violence. And then there tends to be older white-male suicides, and that make up two-thirds of gun deaths. We tend not to see that population in the ER, but the other third we see."

The gun-violence victims Dark has seen coming into the ER recently are largely Black and Hispanic, and are in their teens through 30s.

Dark is seeing a parallel shift in the kind of patient entering the hospital with coronavirus. Early on, he said, the disease tore through multigenerational homes, especially those that housed both young frontline workers with more exposure and older relatives with comorbidities. Dark is now seeing more patients who are white, middle-class, young people.

"The first wave decimated the Black and Hispanic population," he said, noting that those were the groups his hospital primarily served. "Now, it's more younger people who are out and about."

a group of people standing around each other: Physicians said emergency-room staff members and administration should take notice of workers' mental health during periods of trauma. shapecharge/Getty Images © shapecharge/Getty Images Physicians said emergency-room staff members and administration should take notice of workers' mental health during periods of trauma. shapecharge/Getty Images

Physicians' 'I can deal with this' attitude only goes so far

Both Dark and Mitchell emphasized the need for healthcare workers to seek help while continuing to face trauma on the job.

"Pretty much everybody who works in emergency services tends to have sort of 'I can deal with this' attitude, and yet that only goes so far," Mitchell said. "You have to take care of yourself and make sure that the trauma you're experiencing at work caring for these patients who are injured, or who are really sick, does not come home with you and it doesn't manifest in unhealthy forms."

The physicians said healthcare institutions also needed to do more to prioritize their staffers' mental health. That could come in the form of making counselors available, improving trauma debriefing policies, or ensuring that nurses and doctors were not being overworked, Mitchell said.

Dark also recommended abandoning some hospitals' practice of asking job candidates to identify any mental illness they might have when applying for a position.

"That encourages people not to treat things," Dark said. "One of the most important things that could be done is destigmatize taking care of for mental-health care because there are many physicians out there that are feeling problems like this and want to act on it, but because of how we're treating them in medicine, it puts up a barrier."

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