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“Breaking” the Emergency Department: Does the Culture of Emergency Medicine Present a Barrier to Self-Care?


Introduction: Our goal was to critically examine emergency physician’s (EP) beliefs about taking breaks for self-care on shift. Our operational definition of a break for self-care included time not engaging in direct patient care, eating, drinking, using the bathroom, or leaving a clinical area for a mental break. Using focus groups, the study aimed to accomplish the following: 1) identify barriers to why residents and faculty at our academic center may not take breaks in the emergency department; 2) generate hypotheses for empirical testing; and 3) generate solutions to include in a departmental breaks initiative.

Methods: We convened eight focus groups comprised separately of resident and faculty physicians. Group discussion was guided by eight questions representing a priori themes. The groups were recorded for transcription and subjected to a “cut-and-sort” process. Six themes were identified by consensus after independent review by three of the co-authors, which were confirmed by participant validation.

Results: We identified six themes that represented the pooled outcomes of both resident and faculty focus groups: 1) Physiological needs affect clinical performance, 2) EPs share beliefs around taking breaks that center on productivity, patient safety and the dichotomy of strength/weakness, 3) when taking breaks EPs fear worst-case scenarios, 4) breaking is a learned skill, 5) culture change is needed to allow EPs to engage in self-care; and 6) a flexible, individualized approach to breaking is necessary. Our central finding was that productivity and patient safety are of key importance to EPs when considering whether to take a break for self-care. We identified a dichotomy with the concept of strength related to productivity/patient safety, and the concept of weakness related to self-care.

Conclusion: The current practice culture of emergency medicine and the organization of our unique work environment may present barriers to physicians attempting to engage in self-care.

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