Communicating through the mask: Learning from the collective experience during COVID-19

06 January 2021

Mathias Schlögl is a Geriatrician who works in Zurich, Switzerland. Adam Gordon is Professor of Care of Older People at the University of Nottingham and President Elect of the BGS. Here they discuss how COVID-19 has challenged communication between healthcare professionals and older patients and highlight a survey to collate and understand how those with expertise in care of older people have risen to the challenge.

Effective communication lies at the heart of all good healthcare. It is particularly important in the care of older people, because of the complexity of common exchanges. Delivering bad news, supporting patients through periods of functional or cognitive decline, explaining the limitations of adaptive rehabilitation approaches, and establishing appropriate goals of care in the setting of serious or life-threatening illness are everyday conversations for geriatricians and the multidisciplinary teams that work with them.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare professionals have had to deal with additional challenges. These include: even more uncertainty around prognosis, the use of remote and electronic communication tools with families who are unable to visit seriously unwell relatives in hospital because of geography or shielding requirements and challenging widely circulated misinformation about COVID-19 and its treatments whilst maintaining therapeutic relationships.

During the first wave of the pandemic, Mathias wrote for the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society about Maintaining Our Humanity Through the Mask: Mindful Communication During COVID-19 and further described this in a blog for the British Geriatrics Society.

Valuable, internet-based manuals on how to tailor communication skills to the needs of patients with COVID-19 have been developed, for example, by VitalTalk,  and the Association for Palliative Medicine of Great Britain and Ireland.

We want, now, as the pandemic progresses, to learn from the collective experience of colleagues regarding communication during the COVID-19 pandemic. We plan to do this through a short survey which can be accessed online here.

The aims of the evaluation study will be as follows:

  • to elicit previous communication experiences while wearing a mask during the spring/summer of the COVID-19 pandemic,
  • to assess possible barriers for new COVID-19-adapted communications while wearing a mask,
  • to investigate the possible effects of a short communication course on perceived key communication skills of the participants.

NB: Before completing the survey, please watch the related short film here.

We hope that the results of this survey will shed light on this very important topic and connect with our colleagues around the globe to build a shared knowledge-base about communication with older people during the pandemic. It is possible that this learning will inform communication during future pandemics, or in other day-to-day situations where mask-wearing is required. However, it is also possible that there are lessons from pandemic-based communication that can inform more everyday interactions and enable us to work even more effectively with our vulnerable patient group.

We know that you, the readers of this blog, will have important experiences to share – please join in the discussion by completing the survey.


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