Emergency Nurses Overdosing on Rush of Opioid Patients
By Gary Evans
Emergency nurses who participated in a study in Philadelphia expressed frustration and other negative emotions about caring for patients addicted to opioids and other drugs.1
“Across the nation and in the city of Philadelphia, emergency nurses, providers, and staff witness devastating illness, suffering, and trauma [daily],” the study authors noted. “Adding to this workload are patients with drug and addiction issues that nurses in our focus groups shared were increasing their feelings of frustration, [compassion fatigue], and job dissatisfaction.”
According to the CDC, “Overdose deaths involving opioids, including prescription opioids, heroin, and synthetic opioids like fentanyl, have increased by more than eight times since 1999. Overdoses involving opioids killed nearly 69,000 people in 2020.”2
Emergency nurses said they needed help to increase their compassion for these patients, calling for management support and encouragement across all work shifts, debriefing opportunities, and more education. The latter could result in “fostering a high level of self-awareness and understanding of how the work environment influences personal well-being and necessary strategies to avoid the frustrations and negative emotional responses associated with compassion fatigue,” the authors observed.
The study was conducted at a 500-bed, urban level I trauma hospital that routinely cares for individuals with health problems related to substance and drug abuse. The researchers held 24 focus groups with 55 emergency nurses. Comments include:
- “It’s one thing for you to have someone [who] overdosed, OK, but when you get the same person in day after day — I mean, literally there are people who come morning, noon, and night, and they’re here. It’s a revolving door.”
- “It’s very frustrating when you have people with true cardiac emergencies, or any type of emergency, and you have no time because you are dealing with someone who is high.”
- “I don’t have any sympathy. You know I have no empathy at all for these people now. None.”
- “If someone’s like coding [and dies], whether it’s an overdose or whatever drug, sometimes we’re so numb to it, we’re like laughing and joking over the body. And I get it. They put a needle in their arm. They did it to themselves. But then some days I’m driving home and I’m like ‘Damn, I should have been a little bit more compassionate.’ I think sometimes we forget, like when we’re standing there, this is still a human being.”
- Dowdell EB, Alderman SA, Foushee N, et al. Expressions of compassion fatigue by emergency department nurses caring for patients with opioid and substance use disorders. J Emerg Nurs 2022;48:688-697.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The drug overdose epidemic: Behind the numbers. Last reviewed June 1, 2022.
Emergency nurses who participated in a study in Philadelphia expressed frustration and other negative emotions about caring for patients addicted to opioids and other drugs.
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