April 15, 2020 4:29 PM

Dying Alone During a Pandemic

Surgical residents encourage innovation to improve virtual connections between hospitalized COVID-19 patients, loved ones.

drawing of hospital bed with table
Image by Stephanie King

“One aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic that has been particularly difficult is that instead of our usual promise that ‘We’ll do everything we can to keep him alive until you get here,’ we find ourselves telling families, ‘Because of hospital policy, we cannot allow visitors at this time,’” writes a group of surgical residents.

The Michigan Medicine surgeons-in-training are seeing, at the various hospitals they work in, what they call an “ethical and health care dilemma” that needs to be discussed: patients dying alone during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their loved ones aren’t always able to visit, and providers may not always be able to facilitate long video chat sessions or other virtual communication with loved ones.

The residents shared their perspective in a new piece in the New England Journal of Medicine.

“Dying alone and not being able to see your family members is something that runs to the direct antithesis of what we try to do in our roles, so this COVID pandemic shook us to our core in an unanticipated way,” says lead author Glenn Wakam, M.D.

The motivating factor for bringing this up, corresponding author Craig Brown, M.D., says, is that because the care for COVID-19 patients is new for everyone, there’s a need to think about the best way to handle these incredibly difficult moments that patients and families are experiencing.

“Each hospital system is going to have to be innovative in a way specific to that system’s patient population and available resources,” Brown says. “We’ve got to find a combination of innovation to push the virtual connections, because that seems safest, while still offering some amount of solace to the family.”

Wakam says he’s worried about the downstream effects to come in the months or years after the pandemic cools down.

“Some people may be left with a sour taste in their mouth of how they perceive their family member was treated during this time, and it doesn’t match up with the reality of how much we truly do care,” he says. “Communication with families is really hard right now.”

Paper cited: “Not Dying Alone — Modern Compassionate Care in the Covid-19 Pandemic,” New England Journal of Medicine. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMp2007781