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Protecting and Connecting Our Nation’s Healthcare Workforce

By M. Bridget Duffy, MD, Chief Medical Officer, Vocera

Throughout the pandemic, many clinicians have described their experience with COVID-19 as a war with an invisible enemy. As I hear endless tragic stories and see many heart wrenching images from colleagues on the frontlines, I fear our healthcare workforce will be battling PTSD next, and for many years.

Nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists, housekeeping and so many other care team members have put themselves in harm’s way to care for us, our friends and families. We must protect these front-line warriors and do everything we can to ensure their safety, support their well-being, and connect them with each other and the resources they need.

When soldiers go into battle, they are equipped with a game plan, the tactical gear needed for a safe and successful mission, and a reliable communication system to stay connected to their comrades. Our troops on the frontlines of healthcare need and deserve proper personal protective equipment (PPE) to do their job safely and effectively. Gloves, gowns, and masks are not enough. They need reliable and safe ways to communicate and collaborate inside and outside isolation rooms. They need personal protective equipment and technology (PPET).

Having the right tools and technologies to protect the physical safety of care teams is essential.  COVID-19 poses risks beyond physical safety to nurses, doctors and other frontline workers. It takes an emotional and psychological toll, too. Even before the pandemic, more needed to be done to address issues of workplace safety, cognitive overload and burnout. The surge in COVID-19 hospital cases has magnified gaps in communication, scarcity of resources, and the need for more humanity as patients die alone in isolation rooms disconnected from loved ones.

COVID-19 has put a spotlight on some of healthcare’s broken processes and technologies. Here are three strategies to help heal our nation’s healthcare system post-COVID and support those who are risking so much to serve all of us.

Define New Standards of Safety

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 access to essential protective equipment, which includes the ability to communicate safely with hands-free communication. We need to modernize PPE. We need PPET.

When care team members are working inside isolation areas and outside the hospital, it is critical for them to be connected, while being protected from risk of contamination. 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 to their physical, mental and emotional well-being.

Reduce Cognitive Burden

Even before the pandemic, burnout among clinicians was a national epidemic, contributing to alarming shortages of physicians and nurses. Not only were talented healthcare workers leaving the field to pursue less stressful careers, many patients lost their doctors to suicide. Sadly, these numbers seem to be increasing because of the tremendous emotional and mental anguish caused by COVID-19. It is more important than ever to alleviate administrative hassles, bureaucratic burdens, and complex processes to reduce cognitive load so that care team members can practice at the peak of their license and their humanity.

Use Technology to Restore Humanity

Throughout the coronavirus crisis, nurses and doctors from different departments were transferred to COVID-19 floors, and clinicians were flying across the country to help hospitals in need. Having a voice-activated communication system that enables new and relocated team members to connect with the right person or group based on their role and with simple voice commands like “call room 101 nurse” or “call infection control team” alleviates the worry of knowing names or remembering numbers. Standardized communication across hospitals and health systems can go a long way to simplifying clinical workflows and speeding time to treatment. Additionally, integrations between clinical and communication systems can break down silos and connect people and information quickly and safely.

The pandemic has taught us that we need a strategic plan in place to protect the physical, emotional, and mental well-being of care teams. We need to provide the tools and resources to safeguard these essential workers and keep them engaged so that we have a strong and safe workforce. We also need infrastructure and technology that enables patients to connect to their loved ones safely while easing the burden on the nurse. We risk losing many young people who once dreamed of a career in healthcare. We need to assure the next generation that this is still a noble and desirable profession by redefining safety and restoring trust.