As children we would whisper a message into a friend’s ear and they would pass along what they heard. Further removed from their source, the message would sound less like the original. Usually, playing the “Telephone Game” is light hearted and produces laughs.
Today, with COVID-19’s no visitor policies in hospitals, passing along messages between patients, loved ones and healthcare providers can be a serious telephone game. Think about what it must be like trying to decipher words through ventilators while themselves covered with protective equipment in rooms filled with noisy machines. Then, imagine what it must be like for healthcare providers to communicate these messages from patients to loved ones via telephone. Similarly, medical staff can also find themselves in an awkward position of conveying telephone messages from loved ones to patients, which may have been misinterpreted by frenzied support staff. In addition, what if there’s a language barrier? At these times, using the telephone is not without stress for all concerned. The stakes are high.
In his article Telephone, Dr. Mark Leick (New England Journal of Medicine, August 22, 2020), poses the question, “In the COVID-19 era, when families are often not in the same city, let alone the same room and how we can build a connection?” To address this issue Dr. Liecke and his team at Massachusetts General Hospital would speak to families using Face Time. They introduced themselves to families prior to entering the room so they could be seen without masks. Then, fully gowned with safety equipment, they would enter the patient’s room offering the phone as a video connection so family could see their loved one’s condition with an explanation from their doctor.
Dr. Liecke goes on to say, “Even as we supply the best medical care and work towards better treatments for COVID-19, we cannot forget to provide compassionate and humane support to patients and families; and that means planning for communication breakdowns. Even human interaction by Face Time remains essential for maintaining one’s/our humanity. On our unit, telephoning far-flung loved ones became just as vital as the ventilator.” I might add that studies show that ineffective communication can lead to prolonged grief and regrets after a loved one’s passing.
As a medical humanist I have observed firsthand that “Good Communication is Good Medicine®.” One can feel that belief driving Dr. Liecke’s interactions on the front lines in caring for patients hospitalized with COVID-19.