Heroes of pandemic get chance to register their thoughts

April 30, 2020
MUSC employees working at the Respiratory Specimen Collection Site in front of WAMP - West Ashley Medical Pavilion.
MUSC Health employees at the COVID-19 drive through specimen collection site in West Ashley. Photo by Sarah Pack

For pediatric critical care specialist Elizabeth Mack, M.D., part of working in a hospital during the coronavirus pandemic means making sure she doesn’t unwittingly bring the virus home to her husband.

“I go into work with regular street clothes,” the MUSC Children’s Health division chief of Pediatric Critical Care Medicine said. “I remove my jewelry before I go to work. I go to the scrub machine, I put on hospital scrubs. I put my hair up and take my makeup off so I don’t get any on my mask. Then when I’m ready to leave, I take a shower at work, change out of the scrubs, change into my street clothes, go home and take another shower.”

She’s also living with more unknowns. “Does infection confer immunity? We don’t know. When will there be a vaccine? Will people get the vaccine? How soon will the virus mutate? Will reentry into society cause another wave of infections?”

Mack would never call herself a hero. But her patients’ families might. So would the people behind the new national HERO Registry for health care workers. It’s funded by the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, a nonprofit authorized by Congress to improve the quality and relevance of health information to help people make better choices.

HERO stands for Healthcare Worker Exposure Response and Outcomes. The HERO Registry asks health care workers to share their experiences from the COVID-19 front lines. The Medical University of South Carolina and MUSC Health are encouraging employees to take part.

“Our hope is to get as many health care workers as possible to sign up,” said Elizabeth Szwast, a program coordinator with the South Carolina Clinical & Translational Research Institute at MUSC.  

“We’ll be able to use the information that’s in the registry to do pragmatic clinical trials and observational research and obtain real-world evidence, now, while the pandemic is ongoing, but also afterward, to provide the best care for our health care workers who are tirelessly taking care of our patients to put them first.”

Karen Packard is not on the front lines of the pandemic but signed up out of curiosity in her role as a clinical nurse manager for SCTR. “They send you some general surveys. It’s asking about exposure to COVID-19, but it’s also asking about your overall well-being. The survey questions were like, ‘How often over the last couple of days have you felt depressed and frustrated and angry?’ That, I thought, was really good.”

Questions like that reflect the potential stress some health care workers may be feeling right now. Signe Denmark, associate director of Research Opportunities and Collaborations in the MUSC Office of Clinical Research, said the registry will try to tap into that. 

“What is the mental and physical toll on our health care workers? How do we measure stress? How do we measure burnout? How do we gather the evidence we need to keep our health care workers safe, learning more about how we can better protect them and those they love?”

It takes about 10 minutes to sign up for the registry, Denmark said. “They will periodically add different surveys to the registry. Participants can choose to complete none of them or as many as they want. It’s completely optional. Health care workers who register can have as little or much engagement in this process as they’d like.”

For the registry’s purposes, “health care workers” means more than people who directly take care of patients. “They’re also wanting to include other folks who are just as important in the whole health care infrastructure,” Denmark said. 

“So our environmental service workers, interpreters, folks who work in food service — anybody who works in a setting where our patients receive health care. It’s really meant to be inclusive so we’re measuring stressors and response and risk in the overall health setting as a whole.”

Szwast said the information gathered by the registry can help guide important decisions. “We can try to answer questions about treatment and other health issues that may show up at the same time in people with COVID-19. We can also look at how the virus affected health care workers and maybe understand what we should do differently in the future if a situation like this occurs again.”

And that’s entirely possible, scientists say. The new coronavirus could cause more problems in the future, and there’s also the risk that a different virus could crop up.

If that happens, health care workers will be there. Workers like Mack, the pediatric critical care specialist. “It’s what we do,” she said.

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