Academic journal article Health and Social Work

Experiences and Implications of Social Workers Practicing in a Pediatric Hospital Environment Affected by SARS

Academic journal article Health and Social Work

Experiences and Implications of Social Workers Practicing in a Pediatric Hospital Environment Affected by SARS

Article excerpt

The first cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) were reported in the rural province of Guangdong, China, in February 2003. Within four months, more than 8,000 people in 32 countries were infected with this new illness, resulting in more than 800 deaths ("Special Message," 2003).The last official cases were reported in late April 2004, but in January 2005 the World Health Organization stated that SARS is a growing concern for health care workers (World Health Organization, 2005).

Hospital-based health care professionals are increasingly responding to external disasters in the form of natural disasters, large-scale industrial accidents, terrorism, and emergent epidemics. Increasingly, hospitals are the frontline of defense against larger outbreaks (Patrick, 2003). These external crises have an impact on society, health care professions, and patient care. Furthermore, they present unique challenges to social workers engaged in clinical work in hospitals (Dane & Chachkes, 2001). The sudden onset of SARS in hospital settings created an immediate necessity to study this phenomenon as hospitals, health care professionals, and researchers struggle to adapt to working in this new epidemic environment (Schabas, 2003). Recent studies (Chan-Yeung & Yu, 2003; Dwosh, Hong, Austgarden, Herman, & Schabas, 2003; Gerberding, 2003; Schabas) have responded by detailing the effects of SARS on hospitals and health care professionals. However, no research has specifically addressed social workers' new unique practicing environments in these hospital settings. Because social workers are an integral part of the health care professional team, more research is needed to explore possible implications specific to frontline social work practice. Therefore, this article focuses on the impact of SARS on social workers who practiced with children and their families across various programs in a pediatric hospital that implemented aggressive infection control measures. Recommendations are made for social work professionals practicing in settings affected by a rapidly spreading epidemic. Although our findings may not be directly generalizable to hospital-based social workers confronted by natural, external, or industrial disasters, we hope that these recommendations provide transferable information for clinical practice and research in an underinvestigated area.

BACKGROUND AND HOSPITAL CONTEXT

The outbreak of SARS in 2003 dramatically confronted the world, challenged modern health care systems, and changed frontline practice (Gerberding, 2003). Unlike the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 that took almost two years to transverse the globe (Oxford, 2000), SARS, although less tragic, spread within weeks from the remote Chinese province of Guangdong to metropolises and countries across the world (Chan-Yeung &Yu, 2003).The virulent nature of SARS transmission continues to place hospital workers at elevated risk of exposure and infection. According to Dwosh and colleagues (2003), hospital workers will remain on the front lines in the global response to SARS. Consequently, effect of SARS on the practice of health care professionals is being studied to provide relevant and reliable information on the consequences of working in an epidemic environment. For example, Maunder and colleagues (2003) have highlighted evidence that health care professionals in a SARS environment experienced anxiety, fear, and uncertainty. These findings suggest the necessity of exploring the effects of SARS on various health care professionals, including social workers.

In the early months of the outbreak of SARS in Toronto and other urban areas, the Canadian government implemented rigid controls on the entry and treatment of patients, family, and staff in hospitals (Hoey, 2003). At its peak, individuals were required to use precautions, including gowns, masks, gloves, and N95 respirator masks (Chan-Yeung & Yu, 2003; Dwosh et al. …

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