How do you run a chemotherapy infusion center during a pandemic?
Quick action, innovative staffing solutions, and nimble leadership are allowing one cancer center to continue providing care for the most vulnerable patients, while keeping patients and staff safe.
When nursing leaders at Atrium Health’s Levine Cancer Institute in Charlotte, N.C., realized that business was not going to continue as usual for American health care during the COVID-19 pandemic, they knew they had to act quickly to keep the institute’s 82-chair infusion center up and running.
North Carolina had already imposed restrictions on mass gatherings and closed educational facilities and some businesses by mid-March. Stay-at-home orders were being issued in surrounding states (North Carolina came under a statewide order on March 30). Physical distancing and a healthy, resilient team were prerequisites to an effective COVID-19 solution for the infusion clinic, said Angela Hosking, MBA, MSN, RN, director of nursing for Levine Cancer Institute. In an interview, she said that, at meetings on Monday, March 23, “we divided the team exactly in half.”
Infusion center staff members were broken into an “A” and a “B” rotation, with each team either on site or remotely for a 14-day stretch, and then switching at the 2-week mark. The 14-day rotation, she said, was chosen so that each cohort would have a full 2 weeks away after having been in clinic to ensure they were symptom free before returning. The cohorting scheme also serves to minimize between-staff exposure and risk of transmission.
These changes were implemented immediately, said Ms. Hosking, and included all but the most senior leadership – Ms. Hosking alternates days on site with another senior colleague to help with continuity.
Infusion center patients were triaged to determine “who absolutely needed to be seen,” and clinic staff started making phone calls and reshuffling the schedule so the clinic could continue at half-strength staffing.
The clinic was rearranged to ensure each infusion chair had appropriate space but the nursing work flow was still safe with reduced staff, said Jessica Stewart, MSN, RN, Levine Cancer Institute’s hematology–sickle cell nurse manager.
Patients were receptive, said Ms. Stewart. The team that was working remotely made sure all patients were called the day before their appointments, so they could understand what to expect when they arrived. Any needed updates to the medical history and patient teaching can also be done over the phone the day before the visit, she said, noting that patients are also queried about any concerning symptoms such as fever or cough.
In the spirit of providing information and managing expectations, patients are also informed that they will not be able to bring a visitor along and are advised to expect additional screening when they arrive. In addition to a repeat of symptom screening, patients are checked for fever with a temporal thermometer.
Any patient who arrives reporting symptoms or who has a fever is then subject to additional screening. Physician phone consultation is available, if needed, and patients may be routed to a drive-through screening and testing setup, or to the ED if there are concerns the patient may be seriously ill.
Several weeks into the new operations, Ms. Stewart said, “we’ve fine-tuned the processes we currently have in place. There’s new practices with virtual visits to make reaching our patients easier. Our senior leadership is communicating in a weekly video sent to all [Levine Cancer Institute] teammates for updates; it’s very transparent and the team is appreciative of being kept in the loop.”
Thus far, said Ms. Hosking, “it’s gone well – we’ve successfully operationalized this plan. … I think it shows that people that care about each other and their mission can collaborate with each other” to make change happen in a hurry.
Though it’s too soon to know exactly what the future holds once the pandemic has passed, some aspects of the new way of doing things may carry forward, said Ms. Stewart. “Communication has been massively streamlined,” and staff has found the previsit phone calls an efficient and effective way to gather and impart information.
A staff nurse at the infusion center, Whitney Hollifield, RN, added that patients have seen – and appreciate – the added precautions taken by all. “I feel that we have done well with protecting our patients from unneeded exposure and patients have expressed this to me,” said Ms. Hollifield. “They have said: ‘Thank you for doing this because I am scared to come in right now so I appreciate that your office is thinking of protecting us.’ ”
Ms. Hollifield added that “patients have been very responsive to our strategy for their care because we are truly concerned for them and I think that this shows. I believe that we are doing everything we can to keep them safe during a tumultuous time, and they feel genuine care for them during a frightening time is reassuring.”
On the practical side of things, Ms. Stewart noted, patients and families have provided infusion center staff with a seemingly endless supply of food: “We have never been more well fed!”
Rhonda Davis, RN, is a nurse at the Levine Cancer Institute. Speaking of the changes that have been made in recent weeks, she said, “Some of the changes that I think have been meaningful these last 3 weeks are making sure that the patients are the No. 1 priority. We are doing this by allowing patients options such as phone and virtual visits. This helps patients have some control over their health during this scary time for all.”
Ms. Davis acknowledged her own feelings about the uncertain times ahead. “As an individual with good health, I am scared, so to imagine the fear that these patients are facing must be overwhelming to them. Along that line, one of the most meaningful things that has happened for me is calling patients and having them concerned about my health and telling me to be safe.”
Despite her trepidation, she said, it’s meaningful for her to hear from patients who are in the clinic that they appreciate her presence. She found it heartening “that they are also considering our safety as well as their own.”
The two-cohort scheme has been well received by nursing staff, both administrators and clinic staff agreed. “I think that allowing staff to work 2 weeks on and 2 weeks at home helps keep patients and teammates safe,” Ms. Davis said.
Another infusion nurse, Ursel Wallace, RN, said that she appreciated the speed and efficiency with which the pandemic adaptations were made, including the nuts and bolts of reshuffling a complicated infusion schedule. “I know there were many different moving parts and it took a village” to move with such alacrity without dropping balls, she said.
The infusion nursing team’s spirit was summed up by Patricia Ashworth, RN: “Together, we will prevail!”