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Analysis

Coronavirus: Free Grief Helpline for Healthcare Workers

By Christopher Cheney  
   May 26, 2020

The coronavirus is taking a heavy toll on patients and their caregivers.

This week, VITAS Healthcare is offering free grief counseling for healthcare workers and others who have experienced tragedy during the coronavirus pandemic.

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has unleashed a wave of human suffering around the world, with the United States posting the highest number of infections and deaths. As of May 26, 5.5 million cases had been confirmed worldwide, with more than 346,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University & Medicine. In the United States, there were more than 1.6 million confirmed cases, with more than 98,000 deaths.

Starting today through May 29, the VITAS Grief Helpline (866-800-4707) will be available from 4 to 10 p.m. Eastern time. Frontline healthcare workers should self-identify for specialized support services.

Three factors have heightened the level of grief healthcare workers experience at acute care hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic, says Joseph Shega, MD, senior vice president and chief medical officer at VITAS.

1. Relentless stream of sickness and death: "Healthcare workers have been thrust very suddenly into the experiences of caring for patients who are dying from an atypical cause. In many cases, COVID-19 patients are not elderly and certainly were not terminally ill or seriously injured. Additionally, these frontline workers are now often put in a position of helping patients die without the presence of family or friends. They have also seen a significant number of deaths in their own ranks," Shega says.

2. Dearth of training: "While many acute caregivers have received the necessary training to provide end-of-life care, COVID-19 has created a very different situation for most healthcare workers. Even bereavement training could not properly prepare many healthcare professionals for this pandemic. It is also possible that they are feeling overwhelmed—perhaps even guilty or ashamed—at their inability to treat this disease and save their patients," he says.

3. Unexpected challenges: "The extreme number of deaths they have had to witness—plus the uncertainty of their own safety and well-being—make this situation vastly different than their day-to-day experiences before the pandemic," Shega says.

Tailored grief counseling

VITAS, which provides end-of-life care to over 19,000 terminally ill patients daily, is providing several specialized grief counseling services to frontline healthcare workers, he says.

  • A safe resource staffed by professionals who can listen, assess, and help healthcare workers share their experiences among like-minded mourners.
     
  • Guidance from grief specialists who can help healthcare workers identify and explore self-help strategies and coping techniques to support their grieving and healing process.
     
  • Information that helps healthcare workers recognize emotional and physical symptoms related to grief, identify their own grief triggers, and pursue self-help techniques to cope with grief and loss.
     
  • Reassurance that the care workers provide is important, compassionate, and essential, even if not all of their patients survive and even if they feel lost in a healthcare environment that is changing around them.

Continuing support

Depending on the scale of grief counseling demand this week, VITAS may continue to operate the organization's grief helpline, Shega says.

Vitas also offers a wide range of bereavement services for those who are grieving a loss of a loved one, including specialty support groups and memorial events for those with unique grieving needs such as spousal loss. "Based on the need for healthcare-specific support groups, we will consider adding an ongoing group to our class schedule," he says.

Healthcare workers seeking psychological counseling seven days a week can contact The Physician Helpline (888-409-0141). Healthcare workers in crisis can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255).

Christopher Cheney is the senior clinical care​ editor at HealthLeaders.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

The grief helpline can be reached this week at 866-800-4707 from 4 to 10 p.m. Eastern time.

In states with high numbers of coronavirus cases, healthcare workers are facing unrelenting illness and deaths associated with the pandemic.

The new helpline has specialized grief counseling for healthcare workers such as information to recognize emotional and physical symptoms related to grief.


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