BMJ Open 13 (5) e070982 [2023-05-05; online 2023-05-05]
To determine emergency department (ED) physicians' perceptions regarding hospital companions being prohibited from accompanying the patient during COVID-19. Two qualitative datasets were combined. Data collected included voice recordings, narrative interviewing and semistructured interviews. A reflexive thematic analysis was conducted and guided by the Normalisation Process Theory. Six hospital EDs in the Western Cape, South Africa. Convenience sampling was used to recruit a total of eight physicians working full time in the ED during COVID-19. The lack of physical companions provided an opportunity for physicians to assess and reflect on a companion's role in efficient patient care. Physicians perceived that the COVID-19 restrictions illuminated that patient companions engaged in the ED as providers contributing to patient care by providing collateral information and patient support, while simultaneously engaging as consumers detracting physicians from their priorities and patient care. These restrictions prompted the physicians to consider how they understand their patients largely through the companions. When companions became virtual, the physicians were forced to shift how they perceive their patient, which included increased empathy. The reflections of providers can feed into discussions about values within the healthcare system and can help explore the balance between medical and social safety, especially with companion restrictions still being practised in some hospitals. These perceptions illuminate various tradeoffs physicians had to consider throughout the pandemic and may be used to improve companion policies when planning for the continuation of the COVID-19 pandemic and future disease outbreaks.