Lahey Innovates Lifeline for Patients, Families During COVID-19 Pandemic

Medical Liaison program, technological innovations bridge communication gap

When family and friends visit their loved one in the hospital, doctors and nurses see tangible benefits. Studies prove that visits reduce anxiety and decrease a patient’s length of stay. During the height of the first COVID-19 surge, hospitals around the country restricted visitors to curb the spread of the disease.

At Lahey Hospital & Medical Center, our caregivers realized early on that they needed to find a way to help these patients and their families who couldn’t be at the bedside. That’s when the Medical Liaison program was born.

Several physicians from different areas of the hospital recognized this need and teamed up to find a solution. “This was a true and beautiful case of convergent evolution,” said Adam Lipworth, MD, Lahey’s division chair of Dermatology and a leader of the Medical Liaison program.

The program became operational just nine days after the first planning meeting, on April 11, as the spring surge of COVID-19 cases gained momentum. Program leaders recruited physicians and advanced practitioners to serve as the go-between family members and their loved one’s physicians. Those providers, whose home departments weren’t seeing patients at the time because of the pandemic, jumped at the chance to help.

Medical staff signed up for four-day stints to maintain some consistency for these families. They’d call them twice a day, once in the morning, and once in the afternoon with updates. This accomplished two goals: supporting the families and their need for information and freeing up ICU staff to care for these sick patients.

But the medical staff reaped some benefits of the program, too. Several of the liaisons told Beth Collins, MD, medical director of Palliative Care at Lahey, “This is why I went to medical school.” 

The need for palliative care was clear right away. “Palliative care isn’t just end-of-life care,” explained Dr. Collins. “It’s also about providing emotional support for patients and caring for the patients’ families.”

 As COVID-19 cases increased, the palliative care team could not possibly call each and every family to let them know how each patient was doing. And it was difficult for critical care unit caregivers who just didn’t have time to work with those families.

Families told the liaisons that their regular communication helped put them at ease when they couldn’t be there for their loved ones.

Project HeartLines

While the Medical Liaison program made a difference for families, the need to help patients communicate remained. Some didn’t have their phones or were too incapacitated to use them. The liaisons responded to the deep pain this caused patients and families. Dana Penney, PhD, a neuropsychologist at Lahey, picked up the phone, called AT&T, and the first equipment donation was on the way.

Through her research, Dr. Penney has a relationship with Not Impossible Labs, a California-based company that innovates through technology to solve everyday problems. Joe Babarsky, Not Impossible Labs’ Director of Strategy & Partnerships, and his team, jumped at the chance to help. They pulled in partners at Comcast and Xfinity Mobile to donate smartphones to distribute throughout Lahey’s ICUs, alongside handsets secured from AT&T.

With passionate teamwork from many Lahey caregivers, HeartLines went from initial concept to fully-funded reality in just over two weeks. Once devices were set up, staff began facilitating calls between patients and their families. Along with real-time phone conversations, the team facilitated use of a free service called “Sound of Your Love.” This tool was created through a COVID-19 hackathon to address exactly this issue. “They created, essentially, a souped-up voicemail system that allows anybody to create a custom mailbox accessible via a dedicated code,” Babarsky explained.

“It’s more than just a phone in the room,” Dr. Penney said. “It enables a coming together of the community.” Family members left messages of encouragement and “I love you’s.” Some people would play a patient’s favorite song, and one patient’s church congregation sent prayers.

Together, the Not Impossible Labs and Lahey are creating an educational outreach model and resources to help other hospitals implement their own HeartLines programs in an effort to expand this unique program to address ongoing needs for technology to enable human connection in a post-COVID-19 world.

Reflecting on the passionate teamwork she observed, Dr. Collins said of the staff, “They did it with an unbelievable amount of passion and compassion. It’s the best of Lahey.”