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Caring for Patients and Each Other with Empathy during a Pandemic

During this uncertain and continually changing time of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, patients are likely feeling afraid and care teams are likely feeling sustained stress. Patients’ fear of the unknown may show up as anger, frustration and/or noncompliance to therapy or COVID-19 guidelines. You may also find that you and your coworkers are having disagreements from lack of sleep, long hours and changing procedures. This post provides examples of useful responses to patients that will show your concern and empathy toward them while helping them to stay healthy and continue their life-sustaining treatment. Also provided in this post are some exercises and activities that teams can start doing together or as part of self-care to promote harmony, caring and collaboration.

Caring for patients

Undoubtedly, social workers play an essential role in caring for dialysis patients with behavioral health concerns/needs, such as depression regarding their illness or anxiety around their treatment. Now that we are experiencing a global public health crisis, social workers and other behavioral health professionals can help guide other health care workers in how we respond to patients. Our response may make the difference between life and death.

Some patients may be afraid of catching the virus from other patients and stop going to their centers for life-sustaining dialysis. Two helpful ways to respond to these behaviors include statements beginning with the following:

  1. “It’s OK…” Example: “It’s OK that you feel scared of going to the dialysis center where there are other patients who may be carrying the virus. However, know that we are going above and beyond the CDC guidelines in protecting you and them from the coronavirus.”
  2. “I can see why…” Example: “I can see why you might be afraid to go to the center. None of us have experienced times like this and it’s natural to feel uncertain, and you need to keep getting dialysis. Also, we are following and even going beyond what the CDC recommends to protect all our patients from the coronavirus.”

Another way to show empathy and respect for patients’ feelings is to follow the four-part answer below. For example, our patients feeling frustrated over changes in the center’s procedures may refuse to wear a mask while receiving treatment. Here is a useful approach to take in response to this behavior:

  1. Validate the emotion(s). Example: “This is a big change for all of us. It’s OK to feel frustrated.”
  2. Talk with the patient like a peer. Example: “Wearing a mask all the time has been uncomfortable for me too. Here’s a few things I’ve done to make it feel better…”
  3. Explain to them why it is important. Example: “For your safety and for the safety of everyone else at the center, you need to wear a mask. Let me show you the proper way to wear one.” Then, refer the patient to an educational handout or a web page that shows the masking procedure and how it works to protect them.
  4. Make it personal. Example: “I have a 4-year-old daughter at home. When I wear my mask, I’m not only protecting you and myself, I’m also protecting my family. I promise to wear my mask to keep you safe. Can you do me a favor and wear yours to keep me and my daughter safe?” Then, if they agree, express gratitude.

Caring for ourselves

It will be difficult—if not impossible—to show true empathy and caring towards patients if we are not caring for ourselves. If we don’t focus on our own wellness, we may find we have little or nothing left to give others. Now, more than ever, we need to eat right, exercise and get enough rest. Take plenty of breaks to recharge; this might mean taking time out from social media or the news, especially if those platforms add to your anxiousness or worry. Some ways to refresh yourself may include:

  • Using the 20 or more seconds you spend washing your hands to go on a mental vacation
  • Connecting with others outside of work by calling or video-chatting with a friend or relative
  • Taking up a new hobby, such as needlepoint or woodworking
  • Listening to a podcast that might inspire or uplift you

Caring for each other

None of us can do our jobs alone. We normally rely on our team members to help care for our patients. This may be truer now more than any other time you can recall. Make sure your coworkers know that you care about and value them. Ways to show empathy to your team may include:

  • Do a check-in a couple of times a week with teammates to see how everyone is doing.
  • Lead them in—or ask a social worker to lead—a guided meditation or breathing exercise
  • Share a joke or a lighthearted story with one or more of them
  • Check to see that they are regularly taking breaks and practicing good self-care
  • Realize that they may have personal difficulties related to this pandemic—such as obtaining adequate childcare or having a family member test COVID-positive—and be sensitive to their needs

Remember that this situation is not permanent and that we are not in this alone. One day, this pandemic will be over and we will get to the other side. Together, we got this. For emotional health-related and other resources for patients during the COVID-19 pandemic, visit DaVita.com/Coping.

Amanda “Mandy” Hale, DNP, MSN, MBA, RN, CNN

Amanda “Mandy” Hale, DNP, MSN, MBA, RN, CNN

Mandy Hale, DNP, MSN, RN, chief nursing officer for DaVita, leads the nursing strategy at DaVita Kidney Care. She started with DaVita in 2001 as a patient care technician while completing nursing school, and after graduation, served as clinical coordinator, then facility administrator and then regional operations director. These responsibilities included all modalities and both chronic and acute dialysis. She has served as chairwoman of the Nurses & Technician Council for the National Kidney Foundation of Illinois and is currently on the board of directors. Mandy has delivered multiple clinical and operational presentations to groups in the kidney care industry. Mandy holds an associate’s in nursing degree from Kishwaukee College in Malta, Illinois, and a bachelor of science in nursing and a master of science in nursing degree from Lewis University in Romeoville, Illinois. Additionally, she earned her MBA from Lewis University. She obtained her doctorate of nursing practice degree from Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois and currently serves and adjunct faculty for the University.

Amber Pace, LCSW

Amber Pace, LCSW

Amber Pace is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Licensed Addiction Counselor whose passion is building successful teams who provide great care to patients, improving the quality of life they experience. Amber joins DaVita from Centura Health, where she most recently led development and growth of a 26-site integrated primary care behavioral health program. Prior to Centura, she served patients as a clinician at Jefferson Center for Mental Health and began her career with the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless in downtown Denver. Amber is also an Adjunct Faculty at University of Denver, where she teaches in the Graduate School of Social Work (SW). At DaVita, Amber is working with our national SW team to advance our focus on counseling and serving the behavioral health needs of our patients in our clinics and as part of our integrated kidney care programs.