Pandemic Pushes Residents to Improve Patient Communication

Will Pass

October 27, 2020

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While the spring peak of COVID-19 was tough and traumatic for many residents and interns in a New York City health system, the experience may have accelerated their patient communication skills regarding difficult goals-of-care discussions, results of a recent survey suggest.

Breaking bad news was an everyday or every-other-day occurrence at the peak of the pandemic for nearly all of 50 of the trainees surveyed, who had worked at hospitals affiliated with the internal medicine residency program at the at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai from March to June 2020.

However, trainees became significantly more comfortable and fluent in goals-of-care discussions during the pandemic, according to Patrick Tobin-Schnittger, MBBS, a third-year internal medicine resident in the Mount Sinai program.

"COVID-19 has obviously made a huge impact on the world, but I think it's also made a huge impact on a whole generation of junior doctors," said Tobin-Schnittger, who presented the findings in a late-breaking abstract session at the CHEST Annual Meeting, held virtually this year.

"It'll be interesting to see what happens in the future as that generation matures, and I think one of the things is that we're a lot more comfortable with end-of-life care," he said in an interview conducted during the conference.

Nevertheless, coping with death may still be a challenge for many residents, according to Tobin-Schnittger. In the survey, internal medicine residents who had rarely encountered patient deaths suddenly found themselves experiencing deaths weekly, with more than one in five saying they were encountering it every day.

When asked to self-rate themselves according to Bugen's Coping With Death scale, most participants had scores that suggested their ability to cope was suboptimal, the researcher said.

To help trainees cope with local COVID-19 surges, internal medicine residency programs should be implementing "breaking bad news" workshops and educating house staff on resilience in times of crisis, especially if it can be done virtually, according to Tobin-Schnittger.

"That could be done pretty quickly, and it could be done remotely so people could practice this from home," he explained. "They wouldn't even need to congregate in a big room."

As a "mini-surge" of COVID-19 cases hits the United States, teaching self-care and coping techniques may also be important, said Mangala Narasimhan, DO, FCCP, director of critical care services at Northwell Health in New York City.

"We've had several sessions in our health system of letting people vent, talk about what happened, and tell stories about patients that they are still thinking about and haunted by — there was so much death," Narasimhan said in an interview.

"People will be suffering for a long time thinking about what happened in March and April and May, so I think our focus now needs to be how to fix that in any way we can and to support people, as we're dealing with these increases in numbers," she said. "I think everyone's panicking over the increase in numbers, but they're panicking because of the fear of going through what they went through before."

Tobin-Schnittger and colleagues sent their survey to 94 residents and interns in the Mount Sinai program who had worked through the peak of the pandemic. They received 50 responses. Of those individuals, the mean age was 29.5 years, and about 46% had worked for more than 3 years.

Before the pandemic, only 3 of the 50 respondents reported having goals-of-care conversations every day or every other day, while during the pandemic, those conversations were happening at least every other day for 38 of the respondents, survey data show.

Self-reported fluency and comfort with those discussions increased significantly, from a mean of about 50 on a scale of 100 before the pandemic to more than 75 during the pandemic, according to Tobin-Schnittger.

When asked how they remembered coping with patient death, one respondent described holding up a phone so a dying patient could hear his daughter's voice. Another reported not being able to sleep at night.

"I constantly would have dreams that my patients were dying and there was nothing I could do about it," the respondent said in a survey response.

A third respondent described the experience as "humbling" but said there were rewarding aspects in patient care during the peak of the pandemic, which helped in being able to focus during difficult days.

Three participants (7.7%) said they changed their career plans as a result of the pandemic experience, the researchers reported.

Negative consequences of the peak pandemic experience included anger, anxiety, professional strain, trauma, and emotional distancing, some respondents reported.

However, others called attention to positive outcomes, such as more professional pride, resilience, confidence, and camaraderie.

"While we did encounter a lot of traumatic experiences, overall, there's a huge sense that there is a lot more camaraderie within our department, but also within other departments," said Tobin-Schnittger. "So I think there are some positives that come from this, and I think there's been a bit of a culture change."

Tobin-Schnittger said that he and his coauthors had no conflicts of interest or relationships with commercial interests to report.

CHEST 2020: American College of Chest Physicians Annual Meeting: Late-breaking abstract.

This article originally appeared on MDEdge.com.

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