Lessons Learned During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Jashanpreet Singh, MD, FACP, SFHM

May 16, 2020

Each day, we're inundated with news about the COVID-19 pandemic and how it continues to strain our health care system and resources. With more than 1.15 million positive cases in the United States and over 67,000 deaths as of this writing, it has been a scary yet humbling experience for everyone. There is no doubt this pandemic will be a defining moment in health care for several reasons.

Dr Jashanpreet Singh

From supply chain disruptions and personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilator shortages to exhausted caregivers — both physically and mentally — this event has pushed the envelope on finding answers from federal and state authorities. Hospital administrations are working harder than ever to rise to the challenge and do what is best for their frontline staff and, more importantly, the patients and the communities they serve.

The Provider Experience During COVID-19

Hospitalists are in a unique situation as frontline providers. Managing daily throughput of patients has always been a key role for the specialty. They also play an integral role in their own care teams alongside nurses, trainees, case managers, pharmacists, and others in cohorted COVID-19 units.

Now more than ever, such a geographic placement of patients is quickly emerging as a must-have staffing model to reduce risk of cross-contamination and preserving critical PPE supplies. This heightened awareness, coupled with anxiety, sometimes leads to added stress and burnout risk for hospitalists.

Communication is critical in creating situational awareness and reducing anxiety within the teams. This is exactly where hospitalists can lead:

  • Active presence in hospital incident command centers and infection control boards

  • Close coordination with emergency medicine colleagues and bed placement navigators

  • Developing protocols for appropriate testing

  • Frequent daily huddles to discuss current state- and hospital-level testing guidelines

  • Close involvement in the hospital operations committee

  • Advocating for or securing more testing or supplies, especially PPE

  • Effective communication about changes in PPE requirements and conservation strategies as per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, State Department of Health, and the hospital infection control board

  • Crisis-driven changes, including development and review of triage and treatment protocols and elective procedure cancellations

  • Census numbers and capacity/staffing adjustments within the team to meet temporary dips and surges in on-service patient volumes

  • Frontline caregiver mental and physical health assessment

Daily huddles at key times (e.g., at shift start and end times) can help to identify these barriers. If operational issues arise, there should be a clear channel to escalate them to senior leadership.

Hospitalists could also use several strategies proven to improve staff morale and resilience. For instance, take this time to connect with friends and family virtually, unplug when off from work, explore one's spiritual self through meditation and prayers, spend time with nature, exercise daily, seek humor, and develop or work on one's hobby.

The Patient Experience During COVID-19

Some intriguing data is also being released about patient experience during the pandemic. A Press Ganey analysis of 350,000 comments between January and March 2020 shows that patients are looking for more information about their condition, primarily COVID-19 test delays and result notification time. There is also hypervigilance in patients' minds about hand hygiene and overall cleanliness of the hospital. Patients also seek clarification and transparent explanation of their caregiver's bedside mannerisms — for example, why did they gown up before entering — and their daily care plans.

Patients have been appreciative of providers and recognize the personal risk frontline staff put themselves through. Communication transparency seems to mitigate concerns about delays of care especially caused by operational challenges as a result of the pandemic.

In surveys specifically related to experiences including COVID-19, patients were more likely to rate more areas of service lower than in surveys that did not mention COVID-19. The patients also seemed to put more value on the quality of instructions and information they received and on perception of providers' respect and listening abilities. These insights could prove invaluable in improving care delivery by hospitalists.

Isolation of patients has been shown in multiple studies to have negative outcomes. These patients are up to twice as likely to have an adverse event, and seven times more likely to have treatment-related avoidable adversity, poorer perceived patient experience, and overall perception of being cared for "less." Add to this a higher level of depression and mental strain, and these patients quickly become "unsatisfied."

At the ED level, the willingness to let family be present for care was the key area of concern listed — a metric that has changed rapidly since the early days of the pandemic.

The bottom line is these are trying times for everyone — both for providers and patients. Both look up to health system and group leadership for reassurance. Patients and families recognize the risks frontline providers are assuming. However, transparent communication across all levels is the key. Silos are disappearing and team based care is taking center stage.

Beyond the current public health crisis, these efforts will go a long way to create unshakable trust between health systems, providers, patients, and their loved ones.

Dr. Singh is currently the chief of inpatient operations at Adena Health System in Chillicothe, Ohio, where he also has key roles in medical informatics and health IT. He is also the president-elect of the Central Ohio Chapter of SHM.

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