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COVID-19 highlights need for more efficient and safer hospital communications

Communication technology should be viewed as part of personal protection equipment, says Vocera president and CEO Brent Lang. 

Susan Morse, Managing Editor

COVID-19 has put a focus on the need for a more expedient and safer way for hospital staff to talk to one another, according to executives for Vocera, which provides hands-free communications technology.

A Vocera wearable badge can be worn under personal protection equipment. Caregivers don't have to leave a room and remove their PPE to talk to other staff, according to the HIMSS20 Digital session, Protect the Safety & Well-Being of Your Staff and Patients.

More effective communication is needed to move information more quickly about a patient who is in the emergency room to the electronic health record and to the proper caregiver, in order to know what level of care is required and if an isolation room is necessary.

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If a patient is positive for COVID-19, numerous staff members are dealing with the information on one call, according to Dr. M. Bridget Duffy, chief medical officer for Vocera.

Caregivers and patients in surge areas could be in makeshift hotels or tents, Duffy said. 

"No one has the time to sit at a computer and pull the information out," she said.

COVID-19 has added to staff and patient anxiety, so that reducing delays becomes a paramount issue, said Rhonda Collins, Vocera's chief nursing officer. 

Also, the communication devices keep hands away from the face.

"We really view the communication technology as part of the personal protection equipment," Vocera president and CEO Brent Lang said. "It's not enough just to have a gown or a mask, you really have to have a lifeline to communicate with the other team members."

Cell phone communication can be bogged down during emergencies if there is an onslaught of calls that overwhelms cell towers, Lang said.

This happened during and after the Hennipen County Bridge collapse in Minneapolis, Hurricane Katrina and the California wildfires, he said. 

And during Hurricane Matthew, Halifax Health in Daytona, Florida was able to keep communications open because Vocera runs over WiFi, Lang said. A staffer told him the device saved her from running around looking for people and equipment.

Another communication concern in hospitals is workplace violence.

Statistics show workplace violence is four times more likely in hospitals. One in four nurses have been assaulted, according to the executives. 

The ER has historically had the highest incidents for workplace violence and now it's the first point of entry for COVID-19, Duffy said.

While those responding to a poll question during the session put a priority on strict visitor protocols, Lang said panic buttons can alert other caregivers and police.

On-the-job stress can be seen in cognitive overload. Beeps, alarms and the nagging worry over getting COVID-19 or infecting a family member can lead to cognitive overload and impact patient safety. An estimated 250,000 to 440,000 people die each year from medical errors. 

Cognitive overload manifests in forgetfulness, lack of sleep and impaired emotional response. 

"All of those things can lead to mistakes," Duffy said.

Having a better way to communicate means less shouting and a quieter room.

Another outcome of COVID-19 has been the loneliness, both for patients and for staff. 

A Code Lavender on the communications device reaches out to others to help provide emotional and spiritual healing, Lang said.

Twitter: @SusanJMorse
Email the writer: susan.morse@himssmedia.com

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