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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:
- “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.”
- “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:
- Validate the emotion(s). Example: “This is a big change for all of us. It’s OK to feel frustrated.”
- 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…”
- 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.
- 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.