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Penn Medicine Together: Helping Staff Cope While Providing Coronavirus Care

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As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread, health experts throughout the country are not only concerned about the nation’s physical health but also the mental and emotional impact of constant anxiety, worry, and fear. This is especially true for those on the front line working in health care, who worry not only about their patients’ well being but also that of themselves and their loved ones.

While the uncertainty of COVID-19 makes it hard to totally eliminate these feelings, Penn Medicine is leveraging technology and a robust team of experts to make sure its clinicians and staff have access to the support they need during this difficult time.

Staying Connected and Strong

PennMedicineTogether — a site developed specifically for the Penn Medicine community — provides a wide variety of resources and links to help faculty and staff from across Penn Medicine take care of their physical health, access life necessities, and care for their families. But one especially important component is helping those of the front line stay connected and mentally strong.

“Our intention is to provide staff with many different types of offerings in a way that’s most comfortable to them,” said Jody Foster, MD, chair of Psychiatry at Pennsylvania Hospital. For example, some people seek out articles to read while others want to talk one on one. Still others like being part of a group or webinar. With “stepped” levels of intervention, “we’re doing whatever we can to meet people where they are.”

Life at the Front Line

Even with sites available offering reliable medical information — such as — questions that worry staff, especially those working on the front line of care, don’t always get answered. “Is it safe to nurse my baby if I’ve cared for potential COVID-19 patients?” “When I got home at night, are there specific guidelines for getting undressed after working on a unit?”

“We have found people are much hungrier for information and reassurance about how to stay safe, the need to take care of real problems,” said Lisa Bellini, MD, senior vice dean for Academic Affairs at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine. “The real root of the problem is the virus and while we have no easy solution to that, we do have an ability to help with any anxiety”

With Life on the Front Line, staff can get the answers they seek, from Penn Medicine experts, within 24 hours. A special online form allows questions to be submitted anonymously. “We want to help people process what’s going on,” said Foster, who with Eliza Narva, JD, MSN, director of Ethics at HUP, oversees this initiative. “Employees can read every post — we want people to read what others are saying and thinking.”

Self-Care Video Chat

During these stressful times, self-care is more important than ever staying healthy, both mentally and physically. Live interactive sessions — led by Lily Brown, PhD, director of Penn’s Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety, and Thea Gallagher, PsyD, director of the Center’s Outpatient Clinic — help people navigate what they’re going through with special tricks, tips, and advice. “It’s a good way to connect in a therapeutic manner,” Foster said. “Their team has vast experience managing anxiety.”

Some of the session topics have included “Coping with Negative Thoughts,” “Improving Relationships,” and “Managing Irritability.” During the daily, 30-minute sessions, participants can observe or participate and can access all previous sessions. “It’s just another way to learn coping strategies and feel less isolated,” Foster said.

Let’s Stay “Nourished”

Sometimes the smallest change can help reduce stress. In these days of restricted access to hospitals, getting take-out delivered is just another source of anxiety for those on the front lines. Now, there’s “Nourished.” Being piloted at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, this new service offers staff a way to order quickly and receive take-out safely, with no risk; the order is delivered directly from the restaurant kitchen to a secure access point and there’s a precise protocol for picking it up.

Once again technology played a role: the idea — and the platform to do it — originated at Penn Medicine’s Center for Health Care Innovation. Employees can sign up on the Nourished site or by texting “Nourished” to 215-509-5578. Then staff can simply text in orders from specific local restaurants in Philadelphia, for delivery at 1 pm and 8pm, Monday through Friday. If the pilot proves successful, the program will be expanded to Penn Medicine’s other Philadelphia hospitals.

The strategy is not only a win for staff but also for partnering restaurants. “It’s helping to keep staff at small restaurants working,” Bellini said.

Spread the Love! (and not the virus!)

The impact of notes of gratitude cannot be overemphasized. For staff who are working extra hard in the face of a great challenge to save lives, knowing how much that work is appreciated can give a much-needed boost to help them keep going.

Spread the Love,” another idea brought to life by the Center for Health Care Innovation, is doing just that. The platform allows people to send notes of encouragement — not to a single person but rather to everyone working tirelessly to face the COVID-19 crisis.

According to Cathy Reitz, research project manager at the Innovation Center, it originated with Nourished. “We thought when people picked up their food, they could also receive a note of encouragement or gratitude.” But soon it took off on its own, as a way to support all front line staff. Indeed, on the day it went live, more than 50 messages poured onto the site and as of April 3, the site has received 820! “You are heroes, thank you for all you do to protect our loved ones.” “I’m amazed and grateful for your courage and strength” and “You have my utmost respect and admiration.”

All comments are first screened, Reitz said, but then they will be spread throughout Penn Medicine via digital displays, for example, at hospital entrances, break rooms and even desktop screen savers! Notes can also be seen on “gallery of gratitude” on the PennMedicineTogether site. “It’s making people feel better,” Reitz said.

These are just some of the ways Penn Medicine is helping staff through these challenging times. Employees are encouraged to visit to learn about the many available resources. Note: Some links can only be accessed within the UPHS firewall, on workplace desktop or via VPN.

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Views expressed are those of the author or other attributed individual and do not necessarily represent the official opinion of the related Department(s), University of Pennsylvania Health System (Penn Medicine), or the University of Pennsylvania, unless explicitly stated with the authority to do so.

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