Many clinicians said they are at war with an invisible enemy during the COVID-19 pandemic. When soldiers go to battle, we equip them with a game plan and with all the necessary gear they need to protect them, including technology that connects them to their team. Never again will we send clinicians into the front lines ill-equipped to care for their patients and unable to keep themselves safe.
Not only was there a shortage of masks, but many healthcare workers had no ability to communicate with each other in a hands-free, safe way while wearing PPE. This issue has led to incredible stories of governors going to great lengths to secure more PPE, and ordinary citizens using 3D printers and sewing masks by hand to meet the demand for this critical resource. But much more is required to protect our nation’s healthcare heroes, and we need the U.S. Congress to step up and pass bills that do just that.
Yet, COVID-19 does not just pose a physical threat to nurses, doctors and others on the frontlines. It takes an emotional and psychological toll on healthcare workers. Even before the pandemic, it was clear that more needed to be done to address issues of workplace safety, cognitive overload and burnout among care team members. Patient surges caused by the virus has magnified gaps in communication, the scarcity of resources, and the need for more humanity as patients die alone in isolation rooms disconnected from loved ones.
COVID-19 has shed a light on some of our broken processes, systems and technology. Hopefully, we can pivot and accelerate a focus on the needed prescriptions to heal them. Here are four areas that rapidly need to be addressed to heal our nation’s healthcare system post-COVID and to support those who are risking so much to serve all of us.
Define New Standards for A Safe Workplace
Before the coronavirus pandemic, healthcare workers faced a number of challenges that caused stress, fatigue, cognitive burden, depression and burnout. Adding to the many occupational stressors is not having enough PPE. Healthcare leaders, government officials, policy makers, technology companies, and others must work together to do whatever it takes to protect healthcare workers. That starts by having essential protective equipment, which includes hands-free communication.
When care team members are working inside isolation areas and outside the hospital, it is critical for them to connect quickly, while minimizing their risk of contamination and also preserving valuable PPE. Every time a clinician don and doffs PPE, there is a chance of contamination. Plus, that PPE must be thrown away. Having a voice-controlled device worn under PPE to connect and collaborate with team members inside and outside an isolation room or triage tent is critical.
While an isolation room might have an intercom, if a nurse’s hands are on the patient, he or she must interrupt care to go to the wall and press the button to communicate. If the room doesn’t have an intercom, the nurse must leave the patient’s bedside, go to the anteroom, remove his PPE, then go out and ask for help or pick up a phone. By reducing the number of times clinicians must put on and take off PPE, the safer they and their patients are, and the more PPE they preserve.
Deploy Technology to Reduce Cognitive Burden
For decades, the healthcare industry has notoriously taken a “just tough it out” attitude toward the mental health of frontline workers, especially clinicians. Even before the pandemic, burnout was a national epidemic, with alarming shortages of physicians and nurses. Not only were talented healthcare workers leaving the field to pursue less stressful careers, roughly 1 million patients per year were losing their doctors to suicide. Sadly, these numbers seem to be increasing because of the tremendous mental anguish caused by COVID-19.
When we are through this crisis, it will become more important to provide clinicians with the tools and skills to practice at the peak of their license and their humanity. We have demonstrated during this pandemic that we can remove and minimize administrative hassles that take them away from their passion and purpose. We must do more of that. Interoperability between clinical and communication systems can break down silos and connect people and information quickly and safely. We have learned that having rules for rules sake is not necessary. Healthcare leaders can and must remove bureaucratic burdens and complex processes that add to the already heavy load clinicians carry.
Standardized communication across hospitals and health systems would go a long way to simplifying clinical workflows and speeding time to treatment, especially during patient surges. During the coronavirus crisis, nurses and doctors from different departments were being transferred to COVID-19 floors, and clinicians from across the country were flying to other states to help hospitals in need. Having a familiar communication system in these unfamiliar settings can provide some peace of mind during trying times. A voice-activated communication system that enables care team members to connect with the right people by simply saying a role or group, alleviates the worry of knowing names or remembering numbers. Anything we can do to ease the cognitive burden of clinicians we must do.
Restore Human-to-Human Connections
For some nurses and doctors, removing or reducing human connections in healthcare can lead to a loss of joy and purpose at work or even depression. The emotional and spiritual toll of working in healthcare can be very difficult, even in ordinary times. During a pandemic, where there is so much suffering, it is increased exponentially.
That is why it is so important to find ways to tap into moments of joy. It can be as simple as the entire staff lining the hallways to applaud a patient being discharged, or the ICU playing an uplifting song when a patient survives weeks on a ventilator. Some clinicians may find comfort in taking a collective breath alone or with their team each morning to symbolically breathe life into those on ventilators or sending healing intentions to the front lines.
Calling a Code Lavender® for colleagues in need of emotional resuscitation has helped other care teams get through hard days. This code, which can be broadcast discreetly on a caregiver’s mobile device, recognizes when an emotional crises occurs in a hospital. It is called to acknowledge the profound emotional needs of those who work or seek care in the hospital. With fatigue, despair and burnout levels on the rise because of COVID-19, Code Lavender lays the foundation for emotional healing that reminds caregivers their needs matter, their well-being matters, and they matter.
Adopt Human-Centered Leadership Principles
While being concerned for their patients and colleagues, clinicians are also concerned about the well-being of their own families. Many healthcare workers are choosing to sleep in treehouses or garages or stay at the hospital to protect their loved ones. For many clinicians, their worries about family matters go beyond the risk of coronavirus. Some worry about daycare, home schooling, who will provide care for their elderly parents, who will walk their dog during double shifts, and many more uncertainties that add to the weight already on their shoulders.
Leaders at healthcare organizations must consider the needs of their care teams inside and outside the four walls of the hospital. Hospitals must take a human-centered approach to leadership, and check-in with frontline staff as much as possible now and after the coronavirus pandemic. Provide hazard pay and resources that can help make your staff’s life outside of work easier so their capacity for caring is not maxed out at the start of every day. Observe behavioral changes, look for signs of depression, and give workers a safe place where they can openly share their feelings and talk about their fears and concerns about themselves and their families without judgement.
Make Sustainable Changes
The COVID-19 pandemic showed just how broken the healthcare system is on many levels. One of my nursing colleagues, said that her colleagues who “volunteered” to help at other institutions felt like they were on a suicide mission versus a volunteer mission. Before another patient surge occurs, hospitals must have a game plan that protects the physical, emotional, and mental well-being of their care teams. We must provide our front-line workers with all the resources they need to do their job safely and to go home with confidence and a sense of security. We would not send soldiers to battle without the right protective equipment, which includes a way to connect and communicate with each other.
If we don’t provide all the needed technology, tools and resources to safeguard nurses, doctors and other care teams, and their patients and families, we will see too many of them leaving the profession far too soon. We will also risk losing many young people who had once dreamed of a career in healthcare. We need to inspire the next generation of clinicians by doing what is right and giving them tools and resources to thrive. We must take care of our caregivers during times of crisis and beyond.