Council Post: Technology Can Enhance The Human Side Of Care During A Crisis
In February, I wrote an article detailing five predictions for the healthcare industry and the need for more humanity in 2020. Little did I realize then how critical the concept of humanity in healthcare would be just a couple months later.
At that time, most of the COVID-19 news coverage was about the virus and its impact in China. Fast forward to today, and it is a global situation that has affected the lives of people around the world, shut down much of the world’s commerce and sent the stock market tumbling at a record-breaking pace.
Two of my predictions are particularly apropos in light of what has happened: that nurses would take center stage and that the spotlight would shine on patient and care team safety. Both have dominated the headlines. Every day there are stories of nurses on the frontlines doing everything possible to protect patients. This photo of a nurse at UNC Medical Center has become a symbolic image of the fight against coronavirus on the frontlines.
Nurses, as well as physicians and others, are working themselves to exhaustion to take care of patients. A healthcare professional’s job has always been tough, and now it’s been made even tougher by the need to wear personal protective equipment (PPE), the shortage of that equipment and the requirement to keep COVID-19 patients quarantined, often in make-shift isolation rooms with no loved ones allowed inside the hospital.
At a time when human connection and human touch are so important, the rules of engagement are taking us in the opposite direction. We are being asked to socially distance, even from close family and friends. Patients are being isolated, and rather than being able to comfort patients, nurses are encased in PPE that undoubtedly makes the experience even more frightening for patients.
Here’s where technology can help restore the human connection when it’s needed most. Rather than having our noses buried in games, texts or other apps, we can use our mobile phones and tablets to create family game nights and virtual happy hours. In hospitals, we cannot physically visit loved ones, but we can use voice and video to speak with them and provide support and comfort. We also can speak to nurses while they are in the room to receive updates.
This same technology also enables us to speak with our physicians without risking our well-being during an office visit. They can send information to us about signs and symptoms of COVID-19 and what to do if we might have it. Cameras on our phones can let physicians check many aspects of our health right from home. Telehealth can be a good option not only for COVID-19 concerns, but for other illnesses as well.
Another way technology can humanize healthcare is by helping clinicians stay connected more effectively while wearing PPE to preserve their own safety. During the pandemic, I’ve heard clinicians say they are at war with an invisible enemy. This comment reminds me of something a friend told me when he was a young officer in the army heading off to combat. He said the most powerful tool at his disposal was his radio — and that being able to communicate with his platoon was more important than any weapon system. When thinking about this story, it is clear that healthcare heroes on the frontlines need and deserve PPE that includes hands-free communication.
If nurses and doctors are using mobile phones or other hand-held devices to communicate or receive updates on a patient’s test results, they can’t easily access those devices while wearing PPE. They must leave the patient to go into an another room, remove at least part of their PPE to access the mobile device, get the information, disinfect the device, put it back in their pocket, put the PPE back on and return to the patient. It’s a cumbersome process that interrupts patient care. It also places clinicians at greater risk for contamination because every time they don and doff their PPE, there is a potential for exposure to COVID-19.
What if, instead, they could use a wearable communication device that enables them to simply say “call Jane Smith,” “call the lab” or “call the respiratory therapist” and be instantly connected to whomever they need? They could consult with a colleague or get the lab results instantly, without ever leaving the room — even if they are in the midst of adjusting pain medication or placing a cool compress on the brow of a feverish patient. Patients who are anxious or frightened could continue receiving human comfort and care and nurses could continue working more efficiently and safely. Hands-free, voice communication also can help patients stay connected to their care teams.
Technology is also helpful for reducing noise and distractions, which have likely increased during this pandemic. Even in calm times, hospitals can be chaotic with incessant overhead paging, alarms and alerts. In a crisis, it can be pandemonium, creating tremendous levels of cognitive overload for already stressed clinicians.
But the right technology can eliminate loud overhead paging and help organize and prioritize alerts and alarms, so they go only to the person or team who needs them and can do something about them. For instance, a change in a patient’s pulse, breathing and blood oxygen levels can trigger an alert to the care team so immediate action can be taken. Managing alarms and alerts creates a quieter environment for healing, while helping to reduce the cognitive burden on the healer.
Local governments and healthcare organizations looking for solutions to manage COVID-19 and potential patient surges must engage with tech companies that are agile and that can reimagine PPE to safeguard patients and care teams on the frontlines. The sooner we find ways to bring more humanity back to healthcare, the better off we will be — not just today, but even beyond when the current crisis passes.
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