Hospice providers nationwide are reassessing how they provide bereavement care due to the need for social distancing during the ongoing pandemic. With few other options, many are turning to telehealth systems to support grieving families.
Hospices have had to cancel in-person counseling sessions, meetings with families as well as support groups and other services to avoid spreading the COVID-19 virus. These necessary restrictions come at a time in which many families in addition to their grief are coping with increased anxiety, depression, loneliness and isolation as the outbreak continues.
“We know how important our services are to people who are already coping with the loss of a loved one,” said Chesapeake Life Center Director Susan Coale. “Grief can be even more acute when it is compounded with decreased social interaction, the cancelling of events that we were looking forward to, and worrying about the health and safety of others as well as ourselves,”
Chesapeake Life Center is affiliated with Hospice of the Chesapeake.
Hospices around the country are working to reduce risk of exposure to the coronavirus among their vulnerable patient populations. Increased use of telemedicine is one of the various tactics that providers are employing, and hospices have had to move quickly to move services online.
“It’s pushed us towards doing more things virtually, and hopefully reaching some people that we weren’t reaching before,” said Bereavement Supervisor Maggie Cochran from Hospice Austin in Texas. “We’re not doing any in person visits, and so we’ve had to adapt. Moving the counseling online was pretty immediate, but the support groups took us about two weeks. I think a lot of people are moving outside their comfort zone to try and use these video platforms for the first time, but we are all learning together. We’ve had a really good response.”
The U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) recently expanded Medicare coverage to enable beneficiaries to receive an expanded range of telehealth services for the duration of the pandemic, though questions remain as to how (or if) hospices will be reimbursed by CMS for services rendered online. Increasing the use of telehealth does come with a price tag. Hospices nationwide are buying more electronic equipment, software licenses, training materials and other telehealth necessities.
Many hospices, including Hospice Austin, open their bereavement care services to anyone in the community, regardless of whether they are the family of one of their deceased patients. Among these is Walla Walla Community Hospice in Washington state.
Walla Walla is also working to find ways to deliver community education remotely, particularly a continuation of a program in which hospice professionals visit schools to talk to children about grief. The hospice is working with an art therapy organization and a children’s grief counseling center to build a version of this program that can be done online.
Walla Walla had to suspend its 10-week bereavement support group programs due to pandemic-related safety concerns. However, the hospice quickly retooled these services for remote participation.
“These are close groups. They create a safe, intimate environment, and the participants end up getting very bonded. We’re going to move forward and do another 10-week group [via telehealth], and we’re attempting to maintain the same parameters as we would for our nonvirtual groups,” Brad McMasters, outreach and events coordinator for Walla Walla Community Hospice, told Hospice News.