May 20, 2020
Nurses around the world have been called on to care for hospitalized COVID-19 patients like never before. From patient care, to communicating with loved ones not allowed in the hospital, to being the only person at the bedside of patients as they pass away, nurses on the frontlines have proven to be invaluable in the fight against the coronavirus.
IUPUI’s Lindsay Haskett is working to understand how nurses caring for COVID-19 patients experience vicarious trauma – the personal impact of working with COVID-19 patients that results from nurses becoming personally invested in patient care. She hopes this knowledge will help healthcare systems better support nurses during future times of crisis.
After hearing many of her nursing friends share fears of how the coronavirus could impact their health and families, Haskett connected with a consortium of nurses from the IU School of Nursing, the University of Texas, and Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital – a collaboration formed through the AMPATH Research Network and fostered during her time living in Kenya – to launch an online survey.
“Nurses are the largest workforce of healthcare providers in the world, and this pandemic has challenged healthcare in ways our generation has never experienced,” said Haskett, adjunct faculty with the Indiana University School of Medicine and nurse educator in the department of surgery. “We want to understand the degree to which caring for COVID-19 patients has impacted nurses, and how it varies from country to country.”
While many studies have looked at the effects of grief, none have done so through the lens of vicarious trauma, caused by exposure to a patient undergoing a traumatic experience. Are nurses, who are serving as the primary support system for hospitalized patients, experiencing trauma in the same way that patients or families are? That’s what Haskett’s consortium wants to discover.
“We are examining some of the biggest perceived stressors, like the availability of personal protection equipment and whether they feel supported,” Haskett said. “If we can identify some of their biggest concerns, we can determine whether interventions can be put in place to proactively prepare for a future situation.”
Beyond how nurses are impacted at work, the study also hopes to understand how caring for COVID-19 patients has impacted them at home. Questions explore effects on their mental health, such as difficulty sleeping or insomnia, whether they are experiencing flashbacks, if there has been increased drug or alcohol use, and more.
“Nurses are putting themselves at risk just by going to work, and they are worried about what that means when they are home with their families,” Haskett said.
She acknowledges the unique challenges nurses face during this time. Not only are they dealing with constantly changing policies and protocols, nurses cannot rely on proven methods for treatment of this virus.
“There aren’t many diseases we don’t have a vaccine for or that a systemic cure doesn’t work,” she said. “We can give you a new heart or lungs, but there isn’t anything scientifically proven with COVID-19, and that’s new for nurses, especially here in the United States.”
In other parts of the world where equipment is not always readily available like in the US, nurses may be accustomed to not having preferred treatment methods when caring for patients. While Haskett was in Kenya, she said even access to dialysis for intensive care patients who can’t leave the unit – something that could be more easily done in American hospitals – would have made a big impact on the care provided in some cases. This study, featuring nurses from all over the world, will offer interesting insight into these differences.
With nurses in all countries being looked to in unprecedented ways, understanding the impacts on their health and well-being will be vital to helping not just in the long-term, but also now.
“This pandemic isn’t ending anytime soon,” Haskett said. “If we can discover what nurses need now, we can help them in the short-term by figuring out how they can better cope or feel some sense of relief from the stress they are under.”
If you are a nurse who has cared for COVID-19 patients, participate in Haskett’s study by completing the online survey.