Hospitalists address patient experience during the pandemic

Adopt strategies to communicate with compassion


A patient’s lived experience of being in the hospital is shaped by a variety of factors, according to Minesh Patel, MD, Mid-Atlantic regional medical director for the Tacoma, Wash.–based hospitalist performance company Sound Physicians. Some – but not all – of these factors are captured in the “patient experience” questions on the Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (HCAHPS) survey that is sent to randomly selected patients shortly after their discharge from the hospital.

Minesh Patel, MD, Mid-Atlantic Regional Medical Director for the Tacoma, Wash-based hospitalist performance company Sound Physicians

Dr. Minesh Patel

In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic caused hospitals to institute quarantining measures and “no visitor” policies as doctors and other hospital staff donned masks, visors, and other emotionally distancing personal protective equipment (PPE). All of these factors impacted patients’ experience as well as their hospitals’ HCAHPS scores, Dr. Patel said. And since these policies applied to all hospitalized patients, a patient did not need to have COVID-19 to experience many of the same restrictions imposed by the pandemic.

“A lot of the care hospitalists provide involves touch, sitting down and looking at the patient eye to eye, on the same level,” said Dr. Patel, a practicing hospitalist at Frederick (Md.) Health Hospital. “That had to take a back seat to infection control.”

Meanwhile, lengths of stay were longer for COVID-19 patients, who were often very sick and alone in their hospital rooms for prolonged periods, sometimes on mechanical ventilation, isolated without the support of their families. Health care providers tried to minimize time spent at the bedside because of viral exposure risks. Nobody really knew how to treat patients’ severe respiratory distress, especially at first. “So we basically threw the kitchen sink at it, following the evolving CDC guidelines, and hoped it would work,” he explained.

“When we saw our patient experience scores plummeting across the division, we said, ‘This is not good.’ We could see that we weren’t spending as much time at the bedside, and our patients were lonely and scared.” There was also greater fragmentation of care, all of which impacted patients’ experience in partnering hospitals.

Dr. Patel and his team spearheaded a number of processes across their partner hospitals to help patients and their families get the information they needed and understand what was happening during their treatment. “At that moment, real-time feedback was essential,” he explained. “We implemented the TED protocol – Teach back, Empathy and ‘Double-backing,’ which means spending a shorter visit on morning rounds but going back to the patient’s bedside for a second daily visit at the end of the shift, thereby establishing a second touch point.” Teach back is a strategy of asking patients to repeat back in their own words what they understood the doctor to be saying about their care.

The group developed ID buttons – called “Suttons” or Sound Buttons – with a larger picture of the doctor’s smiling face pinned to their medical gowns. The hospitalists started scheduling Zoom calls with families from the ICU rooms of COVID-19 patients. “We employ clinical performance nurses as collaborative influencers. They visit patients’ bedsides and work with staff on improving patient experience,” Dr. Patel said. “And we printed thank-you cards with the doctor’s name, photo, and an individualized message for their patients.” Together these measures measurably improved patient experience scores across partnering hospitals.

Hospitalists at Frederick (Md.) Health Hospital created "thank you" cards that they gave to patients at the end of their stays. Sound Physicians

Hospitalists at Frederick (Md.) Health Hospital created "thank you" cards that they gave to patients at the end of their stays.


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