Palliative Care in COVID: How One Hospital Met the Challenge

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Restrictions due to COVID-19 created new challenges for maintaining the values of palliative care and educating medical students about it during the pandemic, Clarissa Johnston, MD, said during a virtual presentation at the annual meeting of the Society of General Internal Medicine.

Johnston, of the University of Texas at Austin, and colleagues experienced an extreme COVID-19 surge when they reopened after initial closure in the first weeks of the pandemic.

“Our hospital and clinics are the health care safety net in Austin, and we serve a predominantly uninsured and Hispanic population that experienced a greater burden of COVID-19 than other populations in our area,” she said in the presentation.

The rapid onset and spread of COVID-19 locally required physicians and staff to innovate quickly, and “we developed and implemented collaborative and novel partnerships between generalists and palliative care specialists to help ensure that our core humanizing values were not lost in the pandemic,” Johnston emphasized.

Collaboration between internal medicine and palliative care involved developing relationship-centered communication for families and health care workers, as well as engaging medical students in a Transitions of Care elective, Johnston said.

The early weeks of the pandemic impacted families with the no visitor policy and the loss of death rituals, she said. Health care providers suffered, too, as nurses experienced an overload of work, fears for their own health and safety, and feelings of disconnect from their patients. Physicians dealt with the challenges of a unique illness, and their own fears and uncertainty, Johnston said.

Meeting Communication Challenges

One of the strategies used to bridge the communication gap caused by the lack of visitors and family contact was the adoption of the Meet My Loved One program, adapted from a similar program at the University of Alabama, said Johnston. Meet My Loved One was a collaborative effort focused on ICU patients, Johnston said. Members of the primary care team, including medical students in the Transitions of Care elective, called family members of ICU patients to collect personal details and humanizing information about the patient, such as preferred name, favorite foods, favorite activities, and some personal history (i.e. played basketball when he was young), and this information was collated, summarized, and posted on the door of the patient’s room.

Maintaining Humanity

“COVID-19 has changed the way we interact with patients and families,” Johnston said in an interview. The inability to rely on face-to-face discussions means that “we really need to think carefully how we maintain humanity and the human touch,” she said.

Challenges in providing palliative care during the pandemic include “maintaining humanity, remembering that there is a person behind the prone, paralyzed patient, with family members who love them, and are desperate to be with them but unable,” Johnston said.

“The Meet My Loved One program helped, as well as multidisciplinary rounds, chaplain services, and frequent check ins with the bedside nurses,” she said.

“I tried hard to call families every day to start to build that trust and rapport that was lost by all the distancing and lack of visits. I didn’t realize how much the day in and day out care of ICU patients is witnessed by families when they are in the room,” she noted. “During COVID-19, it was so much harder to build trust, especially when you add in the inequities and structural racism problems in our health care system,” she said.

“Why would a family member believe and trust some random doctor calling them on the phone? Were we really trying our hardest? Families didn’t have a way to assess that, at least not like they do when they are at bedside and see how hard everyone works,” Johnston said. “Video visits helped but were not the same.”

Some key lessons about palliative care Johnson said she learned from the pandemic were how important it is to remember the patient and family, “how we need to work to build trust,” and that clinicians should be mindful that video visits don’t work for everyone, and to “ask, ask, ask about what you don’t know, including death rituals.”

Additional research needs in palliative care in the wake of COVID-19 include more information on what works and what doesn’t work, from the patient and family perspective, said Johnston. Communication strategies are important, and “we need to address how we can better communicate around serious illness and end-of-life issues with Black and Brown communities,” she said.

Challenges of COVID Care

One of the main challenges to providing palliative care in the early days of the pandemic was navigating the constantly evolving science of COVID-19, Aziz Ansari, DO, of Loyola University Chicago, Maywood, Ill., said in an interview.

“It was, and remains, very hard to prognosticate on how a patient will do having respiratory failure with COVID,” said Ansari, who was the leader of the Palliative Care interest group at the SGIM meeting.

“So, the challenge was how to have a conversation on goals, values, and preferences when we really did not know the disease entity,” Ansari noted.

“We were surprised many times [when patients with COVID-19] recovered though it took a long time, so we could not really say that in the acute phase of COVID, it was a terminal illness,” he noted.

“Regardless, it still behooves us to have conversations with our patients and families about what are they willing to go through, and how they define a quality of life,” he said.

Strategies such as those used at the University of Texas show the importance of primary care palliative skill development, said Ansari. “Every physician should have the skill set of having conversations with patients and families on goals, values, and preferences even in unknown situations,” he said. That lifelong skill set development begins in medical school, he added.

Johnston and Ansari had no financial conflicts to disclose.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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