Virtual palliative care doctors are a ‘bright spot’ in dark times

An initiative to provide virtual palliative care for nursing home patients, their families, and staff in a group of West Philadelphia nursing homes is providing comfort in the best and safest way possible during the pandemic.

The unprecedented challenges that nursing homes are facing during the pandemic have been well-documented: Older patients, who are particularly susceptible to the coronavirus, are living together in close quarters. Their care requires high-touch contact from staff members, many of whom may work in multiple locations. Moreover, nearly all nursing homes have banned visitors during the outbreak, which means that family members are having to make decisions about their loved ones’ care—or say their final goodbyes—from a distance. 

An elderly person’s hands holding a iPad.

Joshua Uy, an associate professor of geriatric medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine, serves as medical director at a West Philadelphia nursing home, where, in early March, COVID-19 ripped through the building like a hurricane. As top U.S. health officials struggled to predict how severely the novel coronavirus would impact the country, Uy was sending five of his nursing facility’s 20 infected patients to the hospital in a single week.

Fortunately, much has changed for the better since those early days of the pandemic—thanks largely to a new partnership between Penn Medicine and West Philadelphia nursing homes.

The initiative provides nursing home patients, their families, and staff with virtual palliative and hospice care, clinical management, and bereavement services. The efforts are led by Nina O’Connor, chief of Palliative Care and chief medical officer of Penn Medicine at Home, and Laura Porter, executive director of Sub-Acute and Therapy Services for the health system. Penn Medicine is also helping nursing homes to develop or improve infection control practices, and the health system is now working with Philadelphia’s Department of Public Health to expand the efforts across the city.

“Penn Palliative Care has been a bright spot during one of the darkest times,” Uy says. “There is no question about that. This situation highlights that when different sites of care collaborate, it can be a win-win for everybody.”

This story is by Lauren Ingeno. Read more at Penn Medicine News.