Chronically interrupted: The importance of communication with patient and family during the COVID-19 pandemic


Case narrative

A 35-year-old woman has worsening alcoholic cirrhosis and repeated admissions for ascites, hepato-renal syndrome, and alcoholic hepatitis. Upon recognition of her grave prognosis, we proceeded with a shared-management approach involving medicine, gastroenterology, social work, chaplaincy, and palliative care. When the team spoke with the patient’s health care proxy (HCP), family, and friends for collateral information and involvement in goals of care conversation, we realized that none were aware of her months-long decline and poor prognosis for recovery to hospital discharge.

Psychiatry Residency Program, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston

Dr. Nichola Haddad

Although several factors contributed to the disconnect between the patient and her support system, the obstacles were greatly exacerbated by profound changes in hospital protocol because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Physicians feel underprepared and challenged by prognostication and discussion of end of life during normal times; we believe COVID-19 has limited this essential physician role and led to tragic delays in effective communication and end of life planning.

Closing the loop

For patients with complex medical issues or those reaching end of life, effective communication within the health care system is critical. While inpatient teams often drive the plan, they care for their patients during a snapshot in time; contrarily, primary care providers and specialists often have established longitudinal relationships with their patients. Ergo, clinicians should communicate directly, and ideally with both patients and families, to achieve patient-centered and goal-concordant care.

Department of Psychosocial Oncology and Palliative Care, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston

Dr. John Halporn

For medically complex patients, PCPs tend to prefer verbal hand-offs. Timely and reliable communication between inpatient and outpatient providers has also been shown to prevent medical adverse events.1 Despite this, direct communication occurs infrequently.2 Given that hospitalists serve as primary inpatient providers for most general admissions, it is their responsibility to communicate with outpatient providers.

A multidisciplinary team redesigned the process by which PCPs were contacted following patient discharge. The transmission of information should ideally occur prior to discharge.3 Deficits in communication are extremely common and may negatively impact patient care, patient satisfaction, and patient safety.

Changes during the COVID-19 era

During the pandemic, patients have only one visitor per day, restricted visiting hours, and limited interactions with clinicians per implemented policies. Along with the increased burdens from personal protective equipment, remote hospital providers (social workers, case managers), and increased bureaucratic duties, COVID-19 has elucidated limitations in medical capacity and revealed the difficulties that clinicians face in communicating with patients and families, especially about serious illness.

associate director of the Hospital Medicine Unit at Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston

Dr. Ebrahim Barkoudah

Tasks include facilitating virtual goodbyes between dying patients and families, conducting family meetings via teleconference, and discussing patient care with specialists through virtual technologies.4 While these tasks are arguably more important during a global disaster, COVID-19 paradoxically restricts physical presence and severely hinders communication.5 Clinicians should continue to utilize core skills like building rapport, assessing patient/family perspectives and agenda, and using empathy.6 Patients tend to more frequently value functional outcomes while clinicians tend to default to treatment modalities.7 Additionally, goals of care and end of life discussions are associated with improved quality of life, fewer aggressive medical interventions near death, and even increased survival.

Given the limited resources and difficulties in communication during the pandemic, clinicians should place greater emphasis on values-based shared decision-making. Internet-based solutions are essential and widely used, and videoconferencing has been initiated at the institutional scale at many hospitals. Many clinicians with little experience are broadly implementing these technologies.7 Despite these technological innovations, issues still arise in how to communicate effectively in the hospital setting, and we must acknowledge that strategies require devices, Internet access, and technological literacy, highlighting disparities in access to quality health care.6 Conversations during the pandemic will require listening, empathy, responsive action, and the acknowledgment of the social determinants of health.7

Improving communication and transition of care

Multiple steps will be warranted to implement the safe transition process and improve communication. High-quality patient care encompasses careful review of medications, communication between inpatient and outpatient providers, and close follow-up at discharge. These steps serve to increase our reliance on patient compliance and the exchange of information about global progression of disease.

The quantitative and qualitative steps of transition of care should overcome disconnect between teams, specifically deficit areas regarding postdischarge communication, monitoring, and understanding of prognosis around the relevance to this era of COVID-19.

Dr. Haddad is a resident physician in the psychiatry residency program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston. Dr. Halporn is clinic director, Division of Adult Palliative Care, in the department of psychosocial oncology and palliative care, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Dr. Barkoudah is associate director of the Hospital Medicine Unit at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.


1. Goldman L et al. Passing the clinical baton: 6 principles to guide the hospitalist. Am J Med. 2001;111(9B):36S-39S. doi: 10.1016/s0002-9343(01)00968-8.

2. Kripalani S et al. Deficits in communication and information transfer between hospital-based and primary care physicians. JAMA. 2007 Feb 28;297(8):831-41. doi: 10.1001/jama.297.8.831.

3. Scotten M et al. Minding the gap: Interprofessional communication during inpatient and post discharge chasm care. Patient Educ Couns. 2015 Jul;98(7):895-900. doi: 10.1016/j.pec.2015.03.009.

4. Back A et al. Communication skills in the age of COVID-19. Ann Intern Med. 2020 Jun 2;172(11):759-60. doi: 10.7326/M20-1376.

5. Hart JL et al. Family-centered care during the COVID-19 era. J Pain Symptom Manage. 2020 Aug;60(2):e93-7. doi: 10.1016/j.jpainsymman.2020.04.017.

6. Rubinelli S et al. Implications of the current COVID-19 pandemic for communication in healthcare. Patient Educ Couns. 2020 Jun;103(6):1067-9. doi: 10.1016/j.pec.2020.04.021.

7. Simpson N et al. Don’t forget shared decision-making in the COVID-19 crisis. Intern Med J. 2020 Jun;50(6):761-3. doi: 10.1111/imj.14862.

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