Courtesy of Sabine van Erp via Pixabay

As many have experienced in recent months, social isolation can take a toll on a person both physically and mentally. While isolation is a new concept for some, it’s an unfortunate reality that existed long before the COVID-19 outbreak for others in our communities — especially for senior citizens.

“When you look at life expectancy for patients that are alone at home without social support, it’s significantly lower,” said Zach Goodling, Director of MultiCare’s Care Continuum.

Goodling’s team consists of 30 care managers who work with more than 100,000 patients across the MultiCare system. The role of a care manager is to help keep patients healthy and avoid unnecessary trips to the emergency department or hospital.

“It’s our goal as a team to engage with our patients no matter where they are in their care journey, to help them understand that journey better and to improve their health outcomes,” Goodling said.

With the added complications and risks associated with COVID-19, the Care Continuum team needed to figure out how to stay in touch with patients and their needs virtually. They turned to MultiCare Connected Care for help — a team focused on population health including preventive care along with MultiCare Volunteer Services. Together, they devised a program to reduce isolation and improve health outcomes through simple, weekly phone calls to isolated seniors.

“This is the goal of population health — to address the health outcomes of a group of individuals and keep vulnerable populations safe and well. So far, volunteers have been able to connect some seniors, who are struggling with depression and thoughts of suicide, with assistance,” Michelle Sabia, Program Manager for MultiCare Connected Care, said.

Here’s how it works: A volunteer calls a senior who has consented to receive phone calls and simply lends an ear. They discuss any health concerns that the senior would like reported back to their care manager.

“The calls allow us to listen to the seniors and show that we care about them and their needs,” Alissa Rooks, Senior Member Services Community Coordinator, said. “Communicating the seniors’ concerns to the Care Management team adds an additional support for them.”

The volunteer provides weekly reports to care managers about different things they’ve heard from the patient, if the concern is immediate, the volunteer reports back that day. These reports can be anything from physical pain clients are experiencing to suicidal thoughts.

“Isolation, especially in our current situation, is really affecting people emotionally and mentally. Because of social restrictions due to the pandemic, people miss connecting with people through their regular activities.,” Fiona Mudgett, MultiCare Hospice Volunteer Services Program Coordinator, said. “Since we’ve started our calls, I’ve talked to several clients who’ve expressed frustration because of the outbreak.”

Rooks and Mudgett are piloting the program and are now recruiting volunteers. They say it’s an easy way for people to care for others within the safety of their own homes.

“The ambulatory care navigators are all really enjoying the program because they want to help their patients and there’s not always an outlet to do so,” Sabia said. “Especially when it comes to mental health. A lot of times they know that their patients have needs, but they don’t have a place to refer them. Now they do.”

Based on the feedback they’ve received so far, those on the receiving end of the calls are loving it.

“I’m happy to get a call; sometimes my phone doesn’t ring for days,” one client said.

Another expressed her gratitude to the staff member who called her.

“At the end of the call, a client told me she thought it was an awesome idea and she was amazed that MultiCare offered something this great,” the staff member said. “She had sisters north of Seattle who are now complaining because their health care organizations don’t offer anything like this. She thanked me profusely and said she’s looking forward to getting another call again next week.”

While the program was prompted by the COVID-19 outbreak, the teams involved hope it will extend and grow well beyond the pandemic.

“Programs like this show that MultiCare is a robust community partner; that we are willing to go above and beyond traditional health care where you go to the hospital and then you go home,” Goodling said. “We want the patients to know that we are here for them.”

By Kortney Scroger, MultiCare

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