Patient Experience During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Patient Experience Week is April 26 to April 30, but this year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare organizations face unprecedented challenges in caring for patients. In fact, The Beryl Institute, which sponsors the week, is encouraging organizations to recognize Patient Experience Week this year whenever it feels appropriate, whether that is in April or later in 2021.

The week, however, offers an occasion to step back, for a moment, and honor the truly heroic efforts of our front-line caregivers, who are working under extreme pressure, with risks to their own health and safety, to care for a surge of sick and distressed patients. It also provides an occasion for healthcare leaders to think about what actions they can be taking to look after their care teams and to safeguard the best possible experience for patients who are turning to their facilities for lifesaving care.

Care for Your Care Teams

Even in the best of times, one of the best ways to improve the experiences of patients is to improve the experiences of care teams. Healthcare professionals who find joy and meaning in their work will co-create better experiences with their patients, and researchers have found that those who are experiencing frustration or burnout may be less likely to engage with their patients.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put tremendous stress on healthcare workers, as they are called upon to make difficult care decisions and to work under the constraints of limited resources. Oftentimes, many are feeling overwhelmed and inadequate to the task at hand, as they worry about their own health, the health of their families, and the health of their patients. This stress puts these workers at risk of mental health challenges, as an analysis in the BMJ research journal notes, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Leaders at all levels of the organization, but especially those who directly supervise front-line staff, need to be proactive in providing support. A few key actions you can take:

  • Build trust by providing clear and honest information about the realities of the situation.
  • Make sure staff receive just-in-time training, if necessary, to meet the care challenges they will face.
  • Recognize the emotional support people get from their team members and look for ways to promote team bonding. One possibility is for leaders to create opportunities for team members to meet, remotely if necessary, to discuss and reflect on the challenges they are facing.
  • Check in individually with team members frequently to see how they are doing and to discuss any difficult decisions they’ve had to make.

Remember that, after the crisis has passed, mental health effects will persist. It’s important for leaders to stay connected to their people so that they can identify and support those who may benefit from counseling or treatment.

Offer Virtual Visitation Options

It’s a patient experience best practice to allow 24-hour visitation for families and friends of hospital patients. But for patients in isolation with COVID-19, this isn’t possible. These patients are cut off from those they love at a time of sickness and vulnerability.

If your organization does not have guidelines for how to ensure “virtual visitation” for patients in isolation, it’s a good time to put some in place. Does every patient in isolation at your facility have access to a device, such as a tablet computer or smartphone, with a virtual chat application that they know how to use?

Guidelines can cover questions such as:

  • Is it OK for isolation patients to use their personal devices? What’s the device disinfection protocol?
  • How do you ensure access to a device if the patient does not have a personal device? What if the family doesn’t have a device?
  • Whose responsibility is it to make sure the patient has the device and that the patient and their loved ones know how to use the chat application?

Focus Attention on Disparities in Care

Troubling statistics are indicating that African Americans are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, in terms of who is infected, who is tested, and who dies of the disease, as noted in a Stat report. Existing disparities in healthcare access and social determinants of health are contributors, as well as the prevalence of chronic conditions.

Many lower income households also find social distancing difficult to achieve because family members earn hourly wages or work jobs considered essential, which means they can’t work at home; larger numbers of people are sharing living spaces; and public transportation is the only way to get to jobs or grocery stores.

A recent report also called attention to the dangerous vulnerability of patients who don’t speak English, as they present to overloaded emergency departments and ICUs. This report cited a recommendation to have a staff member on site to coordinate language access.

At this time of national emergency, it’s critical for healthcare leaders to place heightened emphasis on whatever existing resources and programs they have to promote the cultural competence of their care teams and to address social determinants of health, making a point of raising awareness with their teams of the role health disparities are playing in this crisis. A commitment to health equity is in keeping with the dedication to offer the best possible care and care experiences to all patients.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in April 2020 and has been updated with new content. 

Susan Duhig

Consultant, Relias

Susan Duhig is a writer who helps healthcare organizations improve care quality and patient experience by creating educational materials and communications campaigns that speak to and engage healthcare leaders, clinicians, patients and the public. She has spent much of the last 20 years working alongside clinical teams, day-to-day, immersed in understanding and advancing their work and telling their stories. Most recently, she has worked as a clinical communications consultant and director for Ascension, the nation’s largest nonprofit health system, where she has lent communications expertise to efforts to reduce sepsis mortality; improve cross-continuum care for chronic respiratory diseases; and enhance patient, family and care team experience, among many others. Susan earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Emory University and a master’s and PhD in English from Cornell University.

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