COVID-19 ICU Visit Restrictions Add to Staff Stress, Burnout

Neil Osterweil

October 19, 2021

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During the COVID-19 pandemic, visitation in intensive care units (ICUs) has been restricted for obvious safety reasons, but such restrictions have contributed to the already serious strains on staff, results of a survey indicate.

Among 91 residents, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants who work in ICUs in the Emory Healthcare system, in Atlanta, Georgia, two thirds agreed that visitation restrictions were necessary, but nearly three fourths said that the restrictions had a negative effect on their job satisfaction, and slightly more than half reported experiencing symptoms of burnout, wrote Nicole Herbst, MD, and Joanne Kuntz, MD, from Emory University School of Medicine.

"Because families are not present at bedside, restrictive visitation policies have necessitated that communication with families be more intentional and planned than before the COVID-19 pandemic. Understanding the ways these restrictions impact providers and patients can help guide future interventions to improve communication with families and reduce provider burnout," the authors wrote in a poster presentation at the American College of Chest Physicians (CHEST) 2021 Annual Meeting.

Valid Concerns, Negative Effects

"During the COVID pandemic, we fell back into old ways of doing things, where parents were restricted from the bedsides of patients in the intensive care unit. And I think we have shown over the last decade that family presence at the bedside significantly improves outcomes for patients and also helps clinicians caring for those patients," commented Christopher Carroll, MD, FCCP, from Connecticut Children's Medical Center, Hartford, Connecticut, in an interview with Medscape Medical News.

"We had good reason to exclude visitors because we were worried about their own safety and their own health, but now 18 months into this pandemic, we know how to prevent COVID. We know now how to safely walk into the room of a patient who has COVID and walk out of it and not get infected. There's no reason why we can't relax these restrictions and allow families to be there with their loved ones," continued Carroll, who was not involved in the study.

With visitation limited or banned outright, ICU staff have had to replace face-to-face discussion with more intentional, planned, and time-consuming methods, such as telephone calls and online video.

At the time of the survey, only two visitors were allowed to see patients in end-of-life situations in Emory ICUs. Exceptions to this rule were rare.

Study Details

ICU staff members were asked about their communication practices, their attitudes about the effect of the restrictions on communication with families and job satisfaction, and about symptoms of burnout, using a validated single-item measure.

A total of 91 practitioners completed most of the survey questions. The results showed that more than half of all respondents (57.9%) reported spending more time communicating with families than they had the previous year.

A large majority (90.5%) also said that video communication (eg, with a tablet, personal device, or computer) was as effective or more effective than telephone communication.

In all, 64.3% of practitioners agreed that visitation restrictions were appropriate, but 71.4% said that the restrictions had a negative effect on their job satisfaction, and 51.8% reported experiencing symptoms of burnout, such as stress, low energy, exhaustion, or lack of motivation.

Casey Cable, MD, a pulmonary disease and critical care specialist at Virginia Commonwealth Medical Center, Richmond, Virginia, who was not involved in the study, did her fellowship at Emory. She told Medscape Medical News that the study findings might be skewed a bit by subjective impressions.

"I work in a level I trauma unit providing tertiary medical care, and we're using more video to communicate with family members, more iPads," she said. "Their finding is interesting that people felt that they were communicating more with family members, and I wonder if that's a type of recall bias, because at the bedside, you can have a conversation, as opposed to actively talking to family members by calling them, videoing them, or whatnot, and I think that sticks in our head more, about putting in more effort. I don't know if we are spending more time communicating with family or if that's what we just recall."

She agreed with the authors that visitation restrictions have a definite negative effect on job satisfaction and that they cause feelings of burnout.

"It's tough not having families at bedside and offering them support. When visitors are not able to see how sick their family members are, it complicates discussions about end-of-life care, transitioning to comfort care, or maybe not doing everything," she said.

No funding source for the study was reported. Herbst, Kuntz, Carroll, and Cable have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

American College of Chest Physicians (CHEST) 2021 Annual Meeting: Abstract A1035. Presented October 17–20, 2021.

Neil Osterweil, an award-winning medical journalist, is a long-standing and frequent contributor to Medscape.

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