Lessons Learned from COVID-19: How Technology Can Restore Human Connections

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By Bridget Duffy, MD, Chief Medical Officer, Vocera

As the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading across the nation last year, many hospitals found themselves in an untenable position as they were forced to place strict restrictions on visitors, leaving anxious patients alone and worried families desperate for information about their loved ones. 

Initiated out of caution, safety and necessity, these restrictions stood in sharp contrast to the decades of progress that hospitals have made to humanize the healthcare experience for patients, families and care teams. 

For nurses, physicians and staff, visitor restrictions often created stress and undue burden during a time when many were already under incredible pressure to deliver clinical care. Some were compelled into the uncomfortable positions of denying family members access to their loved ones, while simultaneously acting as a surrogate family support system for lonely, scared patients. 

As a veteran healthcare professional, I quickly recognized that we had entered a situation that had become nearly unfathomable before COVID. Prior to the pandemic it wasn’t that long ago when hospitals and health systems loosened regulations around strict “visiting hours” so that family members were allowed 24/7 access to their loved ones’ bedsides. After coming so far in our goal to humanize healthcare, we reversed years of advancement nearly overnight. Tragically, many hospitals were forced to deny family members a few final moments at the bedside of their dying loved ones.

COVID-19 forced us to find new ways of maintaining the patient-family connection and often reimagine the way we use existing technologies already at our fingertips. Some care teams redesigned patient rounds, making them virtual and meaningful. Other hospitals and health systems implemented smartphone apps that enable clinicians to share secure texts, photos and video updates with patients’ friends and families. Some used tablets to enable video calls, while others opted to use hands-free, voice-activated devices for patients in isolation rooms. 

As providers rapidly adopted innovative solutions to protect and connect patients, families and care team members, we gained greater understanding about the foundation and future of caring. Effective and safe communication is critical to every aspect of healthcare and at every point in a patient’s journey. 

Strengthening human connections
I have seen first-hand how human connection promotes healing. It promotes healing for patients, and it also plays an important role in the occupational well-being of healthcare professionals.  

Over the years, healthcare leaders have made patient experience a top strategic priority and made operational and cultural changes to restore humanity to healthcare. During COVD-19, many of these efforts have been put to the test. To protect staff, while also maintaining needed human connections with patients, some hospitals had to redesign their patient rounding protocols and processes. Many healthcare workers used existing technology to turn traditional bedside rounding into virtual rounding to ensure that patients received the care, compassion, and meaningful connections they needed to heal. 

Virtual rounding teams were often charged with contacting patients every day via a variety of channels, including phone calls, text messaging and video chats. Some patients were empowered with tablets, smartphones, or wearable communication badges to communicate with their care team members and families. These virtual rounds often provided bright spots for patients who were otherwise alone and fearful, unable to have visits from loved ones. With a little creativity and innovation, hospitals that implemented virtual rounds were able to maintain human connections through technology.

Reducing stress and anxiety for families 

Striving to provide high-quality, safe and compassionate care, hospital leaders at Florida-based Health First knew technology could strengthen human connections if used properly. Prior to the pandemic, nurses with operating room updates would go to the waiting room, call out to family members, and update them on key surgical milestones, including when surgery started, if there was a delay, and when the patient was moved to the recovery area. When surgery was complete, surgeons would visit the waiting room to speak with family members. Yet, too often, families would miss the surgeon because they had left to go to the cafeteria or elsewhere for a break. Additionally, some family members cannot be at the hospital because they live out of state or must work. Relying on communication in the waiting room was not reliable or scalable. 

When COVID-19 struck, in-person updates proved to be even more untenable, and ultimately, impossible for most hospitals. In April 2020, Health First implemented a secure mobile application that enables care team members to send real-time text, photo and video updates to patients’ families and friends. The application proved especially valuable during restricted visitation, providing needed transparency and meaningful communication to worried families and friends.

Real-time mobile updates also ease the worry of new parents whose babies are in the NICU. There are many opportunities for healthcare organizations to use technology that our friends, siblings, parents and even grandparents already use in their daily lives to cultivate stronger connections. And it can be done in secure and meaningful ways.    

More humanity in the future caring 

As vaccination numbers rise (albeit more slowly than many of us would like) and authorities begin lifting COVID-19 restrictions, it is important to take a look back at lessons learned during the pandemic. The swift and unexpected rise of the pandemic forced what likely would have been five-or-so years of industry-wide innovation into just one year. Now, we are afforded with an opportunity to look back to determine which of those innovations is worth making permanent. 

An obvious and sustainable solution is telehealth. Although telehealth had been available for decades prior to the pandemic, utilization had largely languished until COVID-19 lockdown measures and the loosening of government regulations made it essential and accessible. One cohort study of 36.6 million people published in JAMA Network Open found that telehealth increased from 0.3% of provider visits in 2019 to 23.6% in 2020. 

Similarly, secure mobile platforms implemented by many providers will no doubt fall into the “permanent” category. Real-time between care teams, patients and families improves connectivity, strengthens human connections in healthcare and eases the burden on both staff and patient

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