By the nature of their work, hospice providers confront mortality more frequently than clinicians in other settings. As more clinicians in other health care settings, such as hospitals and nursing homes, encounter more patient deaths than ever before due to the COVID-19 pandemic, hospices are bringing their expertise in bereavement to support health care workers and their communities at large.
These efforts are coming to the forefront at a time when hospices have had to redesign their approach to bereavement care due to sheltering-in-place and social distancing. Many are turning to telehealth to replace in-person counseling, support groups and larger functions such as children’s camps, that could pose exposure risks.
Despite these obstacles, hospices are stepping up.VITAS Healthcare recently offered a national grief helpline that gave the public access to the company’s bereavement care professionals and social workers for those who are grieving a loved one during the novel coronavirus outbreak. VITAS is a subsidiary of Chemed Corp. (NYSE: CHE). The service operated from May 26-May 29.
Hospice Buffalo in New York state began expanding its bereavement programs as the pandemic ripped through their service region.
“We have a very expansive counseling and bereavement program outside of hospice, that is community facing. We recognized that the enormous need is there and is going to accumulate as a result of the pandemic, not only just a loss of life, but of isolation and of caregiver strain,” Hospice Buffalo CEO Christopher Kerr, M.D., told Hospice News. “We’re adding bereavement counselors to do that work, and we’ve achieved that. We’ve secured some grant funding as well. Our groups and counseling sessions are ongoing. They are being done virtually, and it’s been a success.”
The U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) requires hospice providers to offer bereavement counseling for a minimum of 13 months following a patient’s death, but hospices tend to go above and beyond. Like Hospice Buffalo, many providers offer their grief services to all members of their communities. Services are not limited to the families who received hospice care from their organizations.
As the nation has seen more than 100,000 people lose their lives to COVID thus far, the need for bereavement care on a larger scale has become all the more critical, and hospices are uniquely positioned to provide those services through their existing expertise and infrastructure.
“Hospices are already providing grief and bereavement support to their communities. I think you have a group of folks who are used to dealing with trauma, with death and dying, and the suffering that comes as a result of that. There’s a long history in hospice of dealing with not only the physical condition before you, but really dealing with how it manifests itself socially, emotionally, religiously and in every other way,” said Edo Banach, president and CEO of the National Hospice & Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO). “The interdisciplinary team that comes along with hospice gives us the tools with which to treat the many different dimensions not only of a patient’s needs, but of the needs of those who are bereaved after the individual dies.”
Some hospices have refocused a portion of their bereavement efforts on their colleagues who work in other health care settings who are seeing patients die in greater numbers during the pandemic.
“Other providers are coming to hospices saying that a lot of their folks are undergoing extreme trauma. They’re dealing with death and dying and serious illness in a way that they’re not trained to deal with, and they need some support,” Banach said. “A number of [NHPCO] members have reported that institutional providers are reaching out saying ‘we need help,’ and we are very proud of the fact that they’ve stepped up.”