The Ohio University Wexner Medical Center’s Stress, Trauma and Resilience (STAR) Program launches multiple initiatives

Compassion for healthcare providersCaring for the caregivers during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has been a major priority for the behavioral health staff of the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center’s Stress, Trauma and Resilience (STAR) Program. Building on foundational components of the program, STAR is addressing medical provider issues ranging from coping with 70-hour work weeks, to fears of bringing the virus home to their families, to witnessing FaceTime conversations of patients saying final goodbyes to their loved ones.

“COVID fatigue is real. We’re doing individual counseling, presenting at morning staff meetings and intervening with staff who have had a difficult time,” says Kenneth Yeager, PhD, director of the STAR Program. 

He notes that repeated hardships and deaths on units with critically ill patients can make people either highly stressed and hypervigilant or shut out emotions and intimacy. Both approaches create additional stress and strain on a health provider’s emotional wellbeing. 

Practices that STAR already had in place to build resilience continue in this new age of uncertainty. They include: 

  • Peer supporter interventions. Health care providers understand the unique stressors of the profession. Tapping into this common bond, STAR has trained 800 peer supporters who engage in 2,000 interventions a year to support clinicians. 
  • Rounding on high-risk, high-acuity units. Before March 2020, STAR staff members made routine visits to units to build relationships and introduce the STAR Program as a resource. These same members continue to reach out virtually to staffs hit hardest by COVID-19.
  • Conducting Schwartz Rounds®. Monthly social/emotional care rounds, built on the Schwartz Center model for compassionate health care, bring together panels of presenters and participants from multiple disciplines to discuss emotional challenges of difficult cases and share feelings. Formerly in-person meetings, the rounds have gone virtual since COVID-19.
  • STAR Brief Emotional Support Team (BEST) training. Fifty physicians recently took part in this training program that teaches evidence-based techniques for health care professionals to respond effectively in a crisis. It also cultivates resilience skills to cope with chronic exposure to stress. BEST training provides groups of coworkers with a framework to recognize and address trauma so that they can build on the relationships that exist within the group and reinforce the healthy support that already exists among them.

COVID-19 response for caregivers

Initiatives designed specifically since the pandemic began have included using an existing phone hotline for clinicians as a COVID-19 line staffed by master’s-level providers who talk through difficult situations with health care providers. STAR staff have collaborated with other practitioners who offer mindfulness work and other coping strategies. They have distributed educational tip sheets on self-care, plus posted encouraging online messages or humorous videos daily to raise spirits.

Individual counseling has included cognitive reframing. This approach challenges cognitive distortions, Dr. Yeager says. “When something goes wrong, health care workers often think critically and blame themselves. This negative self-talk can stop emotions about patient loss, but is detrimental in the long run. We try to counteract this thinking.”

Dr. Yeager emphasizes that simple acts of kindness can elevate mood and positive connections for both patients and caregivers – such as offering an extra blanket, pillow or drink of water. 

“Compassion is so necessary to avoid burnout,” Dr. Yeager notes. “And the better we take care of our staff, the more they can provide compassionate care.”

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