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How to keep the humanity in healthcare—even during a crisis

The early days of the pandemic pushed the healthcare system to its limits. As organizations were inundated with COVID patients, caregivers scrambled to get their patients home safely. Survival was the sole imperative of the hour.

In a time of such protracted distress, when caseloads threaten to overwhelm capacity, it’s all too easy to neglect the human element. Emotional needs take the backseat to immediate clinical demands.

That’s appropriate enough in a crisis. But leaders at Orlando Health recognized that healthcare in survival mode can be devastating to the psychological welfare of patients and caregivers alike.

As Ken Kozielski, Orlando Health’s vice president of customer experience, put it, “These are human beings here with us, and we need to look out for their social and emotional needs, too.”

But how to strike the balance between those emotional needs and pressing clinical demands? How can organizations make care both radically efficient and emotionally resonant?

To answer these questions, we talked with three leaders from Orlando Health. In this article, Ken, corporate director of customer experience Holly Stuart, and administrator for patient care Jenny Beakley weigh in on how Orlando Health preserved the human element—even in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis.

Preserving morale

From the very beginning of the pandemic, Orlando Health’s leaders understood that if they were to hold the line against the virus, they would need to protect the well-being of their frontline workers. To weather the extreme stresses of the pandemic, the staff would have to know that their organization was behind them—and that they could rely on each other.

“We did absolutely everything we could to make sure people felt informed and protected,” Beakley says. “Being at their sides, showing we were there for them—that kind of thing was important.”

Orlando Health’s leadership wanted to create a culture of mutual support to head off the disengagement and burnout that might emerge in such extreme circumstances. A number of tactics helped to make that culture work:

  • Pet therapy. One unexpected source of emotional support was a rotating crew of furry companions. “During shift change at all of our sites, we had pet-therapy teams set up,” Stuart says. “It was socially distanced, but still—those moments of levity provided by the therapy pets were really important.”
  • Making daily life special. Orlando Health’s leadership took the time to decorate the hallways with encouraging messages, just to remind frontline staff that the organization was behind them. “We also led a therapy parade at the end of a shift one night, for about an hour,” Beakley says. “That was just so fun for us. Everybody really enjoyed it.”
  • A listening campaign. To show staff that they cared, some physician leaders set aside time to hear out the concerns of the doctors on their teams. “They set up nightly phone calls with physicians, for several weeks, talking about what was going on and making sure we were hearing what we needed to hear,” Stuart says. This was tremendously educational, and showed frontline staff that leaders were ready to listen.

Involving the community

A hospital system occupies a special role within a community. That’s especially true in the middle of a public-health emergency. As NRC Health has discussed before, when it comes to health information, people trust their local healthcare institutions more than they trust any other entity.

Orlando Health’s leaders were keenly aware of this unique responsibility and wanted to make good on this trust by keeping the public safe, informed, and involved.

The first issue they had to address: care deferral.

In late spring of 2020, millions of consumers were delaying care for fear of catching the coronavirus. While this was an understandable decision, it also sometimes proved a dangerous one, as health conditions worsened in the absence of treatment.

To keep consumers coming in for treatment, Orlando Health crafted a meticulous public-information campaign.

“We had to reassure the public, ‘Look, we’re in the business of preventing infections. We’re in the business of caring for sick people. Of course we’re going to be cautious and take good care of you,’” Stuart says.

To further reassure its customers, Orlando Health also positioned a large number of screeners at the entrances to its facilities. These team members provided an effective—and highly visible—commitment to customer safety.

Securing appointments, however, was not Orlando Health’s only objective. Leaders also wanted to ensure that the community stayed engaged with the organization on a deeper emotional level.

To that end, they invited community members to participate in an art contest, sharing commemorative works through social media. This received a flood of enthusiastic responses, bolstering the community’s connection with the organization as well as staff morale.

“That was the community’s chance to shout out their healthcare heroes,” Stuart says.

Measures like this helped to keep Orlando Health top-of-mind for its community, and to maintain the patient relationships that are so vital for health-system success.

Keeping connections

Working in the time of COVID-19 entails making tough decisions about end-of-life care.

In normal circumstances, health systems do their utmost to ensure a terminal patient passes with dignity—preferably in the company of their loved ones. But with the impositions of social distancing, these measures were not so easy to enact.

Orlando Health’s leaders knew, though, that isolation can harm the healing process and deprive family members of a much-needed chance to say goodbye.

“People heal here, and people die here,” Kozielski says. “Both of those things are better when a loved one is with you.”

Recognizing this, the staff at Orlando Health took every step to make sure that their patients never felt alone.

They equipped family members with tablets, which they could use to maintain an open line of connection with their loved ones. They coached visitors in how to effectively don PPE, so they could safely enter a COVID-19 unit. And they made special exemptions for pediatric patients, allowing both parents to visit together instead of observing the usual one-visitor-per-patient rule.

“These things make a difference,” Jenny says. “I know it’s crazy, but even something as small as putting windows in all of our doors, so that visitors can see their family members—it’s simple, but it means a lot.”

Taken together, these measures helped curb the terrible sense of isolation imposed by the coronavirus—even in cases where the disease turned out to be fatal.

“Our thinking is, this is one of the most important moments in a person’s life,” Kozielski says, “and we just wanted to do our best for these people.”

What it all means

Human beings are more than just patients—they have deeper needs than what clinical exigencies require. Recognizing that fact, Orlando Health’s team is justifiably proud of all they’ve done to care for their community. Even through the worst of the pandemic, they never forgot that they were working with people.

“It’s that real connection, that human understanding of it all, that’s been so important to us,” Beakley says. “We wanted our patients and our staff to feel that we were there for them, to support them through this unknown.”

Indeed, Orlando Health’s actions have been a masterclass in human understanding—one that every healthcare system could learn from.