Uncomfortable yet necessary: The impact of PPE on communication in emergency medicine

Jennifer Aengst, Grace Walker-Stevenson, Tabria Harrod, Jonathan Ivankovic, Jacob Neilson, Jeanne Marie Guise

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


BACKGROUND: The efficacy of pre-hospital emergency services is heavily dependent on the effective communication of care providers. This effective communication occurs between providers as part of a team and also among providers interacting with family members and patients. The COVID-19 pandemic introduced a number of communication challenges to emergency care, which are primarily linked to the increased use of personal protective equipment (PPE). OBJECTIVE: We sought to analyze the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on emergency medical service (EMS) workers and pre-hospital care delivery. METHODS: We conducted focus groups and one-on-one interviews with fire-based EMS first responders between September 2021 and 2022. Interviews included questions about job-related stress, EMS skills, work experiences and changes during COVID-19. Interviews were recorded, independently dual coded and analyzed for themes. RESULTS: Two hundred twenty-three first responders participated in 40 focus groups and 40 lead paramedics participated in individual interviews. We found that additional use of PPE was reported to have significantly impaired efficiency and perceptions of quality of care-among EMS team members and also between EMS workers and patients. EMS personnels also experienced on-scene hostility on arrival (from both families and other agencies). Extensive use of PPE muffles voices, obscures facial expressions and can cause team members to have difficulty recognizing and communicating with one another and can be a barrier to showing empathy and connecting with patients. Creative solutions such as putting a hand on someone's shoulder, wearing name tags on suits and explaining rationale for perceived delays were mentioned as methods to transcend these barriers. The appearance of providers in heavy PPE can be unsettling and create barriers to human connection, particularly for pediatric patients. CONCLUSION: Human connection is an important element of health-care delivery and healing. These findings shed light on new skills that are needed to initiate and maintain human connection in these times of PPE use, especially full-body PPE. Awareness of the communication and empathy barriers posed by PPE is the first step to improving provider-patient interactions in pre-hospital EMS. Additionally, 'communication-friendly' adaptations of PPE equipment may be an important area for future research and development in manufacturing and the health-care industry.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalQuality Assurance in Health Care
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 23 2022


  • communication
  • covid-19
  • emergency medicine
  • pre-hospital care
  • public health
  • quality improvement

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Policy
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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