Virginia Feldman, M.D.

It has now been more than two weeks since the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced new measures to protect nursing home residents from COVID-19. Already, providers, patients and family members are feeling the strain of restricted contact.

Though necessary, the current visiting restrictions will continue to be difficult for residents and their families who rely on regular visits for socialization. Especially now, as concerns about the new coronavirus weigh heavily on everyone’s mind, it will be even harder for families to be separated from their loved ones.

With the virus spreading rapidly and nursing home staff stretched thin across the country, especially in states with high elderly populations, communication has never been more essential — and more challenging. The following recommendations are the result of direct feedback from providers and their initial observations when communicating with families.

What Providers Say Are the Top 5 Messages for Talking to Families about COVID-19

1. Provide a clear purpose for calling.

When contacting family members via telephone, it is important not to cause alarm. Instead, keep your tone positive and begin by saying, “We are calling to update you on our approach to coronavirus prevention.” From there, you can go over the steps your staff is taking to protect patients and families. Be prepared to explain why each step is important, as many family members will have questions.

2. Express empathy for the myriad emotions they may be feeling.

During this time, many patients will be struggling with not being able to visit with their loved ones, and family members may also be experiencing feelings of sadness, confusion and anxiety about not being able to connect with patients. It is important for staff to be as empathetic as possible and encourage patients and family to stay positive and hopeful. Communicate with them that you understand this is difficult and you are doing everything in your power to make it easier for them.

HCR ManorCare, for example, sent an automated update to all family members that included a message from their Chief Medical Officer Mark Gloth. In it, he communicated to families that he recognizes this is an unsettling time and that their care team is taking every precaution to protect their loved ones.

3. Specify the protocols you are following and help families stay educated.

It is important during an outbreak like this that family members know you are following the advice of trusted authorities like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Be as transparent as possible about the steps you are taking and reassure them that you are adhering to CDC and state-specific guidelines for screening and prevention.

In addition, because the available data about COVID-19 is changing rapidly, providing a place where they can find out the latest information, such as a website or a hotline they can call, is important for ensuring their peace of mind. For example, EmpRes Healthcare Management LLC has set up a coronavirus hotline for family members. According to VP of Strategic Process Improvement TK King, the main question they hear is, “What are you doing to protect my loved one?”

4. Reassure families that the health of their loved ones is your highest priority. 

Above all, families want to know that you are doing everything possible to keep their loved ones safe and healthy, especially when they cannot be there themselves. This can be as simple as saying, “We want to assure you that our care team is doing everything they can to protect your loved ones.”

For example, HCR ManorCare has prepared their admission and sales teams to keep in contact with families via telephone, Skype, and FaceTime on iPads or via “in-person” visits through the windows. By taking the time to communicate with patients and families, you can help ease some of the burden they feel and cultivate a positive rapport between them and your staff. \

5. Instill a message of hope and togetherness.

These may be difficult times, but families should feel that they, their loved ones, and the provider are all in this together. Overall, communication is key. Let them know that although this is a new experience for everyone, you will get through it together and you appreciate their cooperation and support as you work to continue providing the highest quality of care for their loved ones.

Finally, make sure families know that their efforts are appreciated, and that every step they take to support providers is a step toward safeguarding the health of patients. Just recently, EmpRes received a letter from a family member expressing their appreciation for continually communicating about coronavirus prevention. It may seem simple, but keeping family members informed is a critical component of coronavirus safety in skilled nursing facilities.

Healthcare personnel, including skilled nursing facility staff, continue to be on the front lines of the battle against COVID-19. Because information about the outbreak is evolving rapidly, often on a daily basis, facilities should be prepared to update their messaging quickly to ensure patients and family members have the most current information they need to stay safe and healthy.

Virginia Feldman, M.D., is co-founder and CEO of Nexus Health Resources. Nexus Health Resources is a leading provider of transitional services to assist providers with ensuring coordinated, quality health care during the important transition period from hospital or rehabilitation facility to home.