UI Health Care nurses provide ‘human connection’ for hospital patients during temporary COVID-19 visitor restrictions

With in-person visits to University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics patients temporarily suspended as a COVID-19 safety precaution, a team of specially trained nurses has stepped in to make sure every patient is able to stay in touch with loved ones.

“We’re that human connection for them,” says clinical services specialist Jolyn Morgan, MSN, RN, one of the members of the newly formed communication liaison team. “Patients and their families have already made a lot of very positive comments about this new service.”

Communication liaisons coordinate communication and share care information once daily with a designated support contact chosen by the patient. The optional service is offered to every patient admitted to the hospital during the temporary suspension of visitors.

The liaisons provide support that a visiting family member or friend would normally provide during a hospital stay. Morgan says one powerful example of the value of the service is the experience of a patient who had recently had surgery.

“A physical therapist came in to get him up and walking, and he decided that he wanted his wife to see that,” Morgan says. “We set up a FaceTime call with his wife. So while he was focusing on walking, we were showing her how he was doing, and they were able to talk back and forth as he walked.”

In a move to increase patient safety during an anticipated surge in COVID-19 cases in Iowa, UI Hospitals & Clinics on April 15 implemented new visitor restrictions that temporarily suspend any in-person visits for most adult hospital patients. Recognizing the potential impact of the new safety measure, UI Health Care leaders created the new communication liaison role to limit any disruption in patients’ most valuable source of support during illness: their families and friends.

“We recognize how difficult it is to be apart from loved ones during illness,” says Suresh Gunasekaran, MBA, chief executive officer of UI Hospitals & Clinics and associate vice president of UI Health Care. “We want everyone to feel safe while in our facilities, and we also want to be certain that we preserve the crucial bond between our patients and the people who care about them.”

Before the new restrictions went into effect, the communication liaison team was assembled and trained to perform this new role. Training is ongoing as more nurses volunteer to serve as backups and help fill weekend shifts.

New patients are introduced to their communication liaisons upon admission to ensure that they’re aware of the service. If the patient chooses to use the service, the communication liaison asks the patient to name a designated support contact and then informs that designated support contact about the daily call.

Duties include making the daily phone call to the designated support contact to provide an update on the patient’s care and treatment plan, receiving calls from the designated support contact, communicating messages from the family to the care team, and arranging for interpreter services when needed.

The daily call is in addition to any necessary communication between the patient, physicians, and the patient’s support contact.

All UI Hospitals & Clinics patients are always free to contact their loved ones directly via telephone or by using the hospital’s free wireless internet service. The communication liaisons work with patients who need help making their own direct contact, and they help address other issues that arise, such as finding charging cables for patients who were unable to bring their own.

If a patient doesn’t have a smartphone or other communications device, the liaison provides a device and assists with making sure the connection is successful. The team has a dedicated supply of about 30 iPads with the Zoom app installed and preconfigured to make initiating calls as simple as possible. The iPads are mounted on poles for ease of use for patients and to facilitate thorough cleaning after each use.

Liaisons are available for patients and their designated support contact from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day of the week until the visitor restrictions are lifted.

Morgan says the service comes as a huge relief to people who would normally be at the patient’s side during a hospital stay.

“One patient’s designated support contact said to me, ‘I wouldn’t know what was going on without you,’” Morgan says. “We’ve heard that same response very often.”

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