As the COVID-19 pandemic takes new twists and turns, healthcare providers trying to optimize the patient experience continue to face many challenges. But the relationship between provider and patient continues to be a healing factor.
As we mark Patient Experience Week from April 25 to April 29 this year, The Beryl Institute, which sponsors the week, is encouraging organizations to participate to enhance patient and staff relations, increase hospital morale, and improve communication.
The week offers an occasion to step back, for a moment, and recognize 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 surges 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.
A recent review analyzed the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the mental health and well-being of healthcare workers. Among the most prevalent mental health problems noted were anxiety, depression, and stress/PTSD. Other significant mental health problems include insomnia, burnout, fear of infection, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and suicidal ideation/self-harm.
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.
The effects of COVID-19 on mental health will persist well beyond the pandemic. 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.
Focus Attention on Disparities in Care
CDC data during the COVID-19 pandemic has drawn attention to the need for greater health equity in the U.S. Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino, American Indian and Alaska Native persons in the U.S. experienced higher rates of COVID-19-related hospitalizations and death compared with non-Hispanic white populations. 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.
One recent report 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.
The Future of Patient Experience
The COVID-19 pandemic challenged healthcare leaders, caregivers, and patients in ways we never imagined. While rapid innovation is never comfortable, many changes prompted by the pandemic will better support patient experience in the future. Telehealth for example, will likely remain as an accessible, reliable care delivery model. Digital communication tools are likely to increase at hospitals and facilities to meet visitation restrictions for patients, families, and friends.
More than two years since the start of the pandemic, COVID-19 has reinforced many lessons the healthcare industry has long understood. It has also exposed many opportunities for improvement that need to be addressed. The importance of remaining diligent, while flexible is key — but above all, the patient must be at the center of every care decision.
By keeping this focus in mind during each and every encounter, for each and every patient, healthcare workers can make tremendous strides in improving patient experience — even in the most difficult of times.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in April 2020 and has been updated with new content.
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