During a busy morning of rounds, our patient, Mrs. M., appeared distraught. She was diagnosed with COVID-19 2 weeks prior and remained inpatient because of medicosocial reasons. Since admission she remained on the same ward, in the same room, cared for by the same group of providers donned in masks, gowns, gloves, and face shields. The personal protective equipment helped to shield us from the virus, but it also shielded Mrs. M. from us.
During initial interaction, Mrs. M. appeared anxious, tearful, and detached. It seemed that she recognized a new voice; however, she did not express much interest in engaging during the visit. When she realized that she was not being discharged, Mrs. M. appeared to lose further interest. She wanted to go home. Her outpatient dialysis arrangements were not complete, and that precluded hospital discharge. Prescribed anxiolytics were doing little to relieve her symptoms.
The next day, Mrs. M. continued to ask if she could go home. She stated that there was nothing for her to do while in the hospital. She was tired of watching TV, she was unable to call her friends, and was not able to see her family. Because of COVID-19 status, Mrs. M was not permitted to leave her hospital room, and she was transported to the dialysis unit via stretcher, being unable to walk. The more we talked, the more engaged Mrs. M. had become. When it was time to complete the encounter, Mrs. M. started pleading with us to “stay a little longer, please don’t leave.”
Throughout her hospitalization, Mrs. M. had an extremely limited number of human encounters. Those encounters were fragmented and brief, centered on the infection mitigation. The chaplain was not permitted to enter her room, and she was unwilling to use the phone. The subspecialty consultants utilized telemedicine visits. As a result, Mrs. M. felt isolated and lonely. Social distancing in the hospital makes human interactions particularly challenging and contributes to the development of isolation, loneliness, and fear.
Loneliness is real
Loneliness is the “subjective experience of involuntary social isolation.”1 As the COVID-19 pandemic began to entrap the world in early 2020, many people have faced new challenges – loneliness and its impact on physical and mental health. The prevalence of loneliness nearly tripled in the early months of the pandemic, leading to psychological distress and reopening conversations on ethical issues.2
Ethical implications of loneliness
Social distancing challenges all four main ethical principles: autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence, and justice. How do we reconcile these principles from the standpoint of each affected individual, their caregivers, health care providers, and public health at large? How can we continue to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, but also remain attentive to our patients who are still in need of human interactions to recover and thrive?
Social distancing is important, but so is social interaction. What strategies do we have in place to combat loneliness? How do we help our hospitalized patients who feel connected to the “outside world?” Is battling loneliness worth the risks of additional exposure to COVID-19? These dilemmas cannot be easily resolved. However, it is important for us to recognize the negative impacts of loneliness and identify measures to help our patients.
In our mission to fulfill the beneficence and nonmaleficence principles of caring for patients affected by COVID-19, patients like Mrs. M. lose much of their autonomy during hospital admission. Despite our best efforts, our isolated patients during the pandemic, remain alone, which further heightens their feeling of loneliness.