Sandy Hook—a reminder of our role in shaping public safety policy
Emergency physicians are compassionate by nature. For many of us, it’s the reason we chose our profession. At the same time, the job requires a thick skin, both for the sake of the patients who rely on us and for our own sanity. This is why it is striking to see one of our own lose that composure.
One of those moments struck me recently when I saw an emergency physician speak about his ED’s frantic attempts to save the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Dr. William Begg, who is also the EMS Medical Director for Newtown, worked as an emergency doctor for 20 years and “never broke a tear”, as he put it—until December 14, the day of the Sandy Hook shooting.
In addition to the profound sadness it evokes, this mass shooting has once again reminded me of the secondary role of emergency physicians. We work not only to treat patients and save lives, but also to respond to hazards to public safety.
Of course, much of the discussion surrounding the events of the Newtown massacre has turned to emotional—and often heated—discussion over gun control. I write not to weigh in on this debate, but to point out the importance of emergency medicine’s participation in the national discussion.
This is because we play an important part in practical responses to public safety issues. Over the last 50 years, emergency doctors have been a driving force behind some of the most important and successful advances in injury and fatality prevention.
In response to treating so many kids with avoidable head injuries, we were among the primary advocates for helmet laws. In response to devastating motor vehicle crashes, we advocated for laws mandating seat belt and car seat use and, more recently, bans on texting while driving. Even before EM emerged as a medical specialty, physicians championed sanitation to prevent infectious disease, which has led to longer life expectancy in the United States.
In the coming months, gun safety and access to mental health services will be debated in the public, in state legislatures and in the halls of Congress. As these discussions take shape, we must make sure that the voices of emergency medicine are heard. Our front line perspective on public safety is valuable, and the nation would be ill-served if emergency physicians decided to remain silent.
Michael D. Smith, MD, FACEP