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PICU room

How to help bereaved families

PICU room

To help clinicians provide better care to families after children die, Tessie W. October, M.D., MPH, and colleagues recently published an article on this topic in a special supplement to Pediatric Critical Care Medicine on death and dying.

Death and dying are always difficult topics to discuss at hospitals. They’re especially hard conversations when they occur within pediatric intensive care units (PICUs), says Tessie W. October, M.D., MPH, a critical care specialist at Children’s National.

“It’s almost easier to pretend that children don’t die in the ICU. But they do,” Dr. October says.

Tragically, some children do die in ICUs. However, even when pediatric patients die, Dr. October adds, the pediatric care team’s relationship with the bereaved family continues. Knowing how to help vulnerable families during these trying times and ensuring they have needed resources can be critical to lessening the health and social consequences of grief. To help clinicians provide better care to families after children die, Dr. October and colleagues recently published an article on this topic in a special supplement to Pediatric Critical Care Medicine on death and dying.

The multi-institutional research team performed a narrative literature review for this budding field. They pored through more than 75 papers to better understand the health outcomes of parents whose child died within a PICU and the different ways that hospitals help families cope with these tragedies.

The researchers found a range of detrimental health outcomes, from a significantly increased risk of parental death in the aftermath of a child’s death to higher rates of myocardial infarction, cancer and multiple sclerosis. Bereaved parents used more health care resources themselves, took more sick days and had more sleep problems than parents who weren’t bereaved.

Likewise, parents whose child died were at a high risk of experiencing mental health conditions including complicated grief, anxiety, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder. Divorce was eight times higher among bereaved parents compared with the general population, and financial crises were common after voluntary or involuntary unemployment.

Knowing which risks parents could face can help the care team respond better if a child dies, Dr. October explains. Their review highlighted simple ways to support families in the immediate aftermath of a child’s death and beyond, such as:

  • Giving parents the opportunity to spend time alone with the child’s body
  • Allowing friends, family and others to visit at the parents’ discretion and
  • Providing easy access to professional support, such as chaplains, social workers and grief coordinators.

Even simple acts such as closing doors and blinds to provide privacy can be helpful, Dr. October says.

An ongoing relationship with health care providers is also important for helping parents grieve, she adds. Children’s National is among hospitals across the country to set up meetings for parents and other family members within weeks of a child’s death. This gives parents a chance to ask questions about what happened in the confusing blur of the PICU and to gather resources for themselves and surviving siblings. Children’s National also provides ongoing support through periodic calls, sending sympathy cards, attending funeral services and in a special annual memorial during which surviving family members release butterflies.

“Our role doesn’t end when a child dies,” Dr. October says. “To help parents through bereavement, we need to maintain that strong connection.”

Another way to help bereaved families is to make sure they have adequate information, she adds, particularly about the confusing subject of brain death. In a different study recently published in Chest Journal, Dr. October and Children’s colleagues sought to understand which information the public typically accesses about this topic.

The team searched Google and YouTube using “brain dead” and “brain death” as search terms. They evaluated the top 10 results on both sites, assessing the accuracy of information using 2010 guidelines released by the American Academy of Neurology. They also assessed the reading level of websites and evaluated comments about the YouTube videos for content accuracy and tone.

They found that there was inaccurate information on four of the 10 websites, six of the 10 videos and within 80 percent of the YouTube comments. Most of these inaccuracies dealt with using terms like brain death, coma and persistent vegetative state interchangeably. “These conditions are very different and affect how we treat patients,” Dr. October says.

The average reading level of the websites was 12th grade, far too sophisticated for much of the public to comprehend, she adds. And the majority of comments on the YouTube videos were negative, often disparaging clinicians and deriding organ donation.

“It’s really important for providers to recognize that this is an emotionally laden topic, and a lot of times, families come to us with information that’s not always true,” she says. “That’s why it’s especially important for the field to respond with empathy and care.”

In addition to Dr. October, co-authors of the Pediatric Critical Care Medicine study include Karen Dryden-Palmer, R.N., MSN, Ph.D., The Hospital for Sick Children; Beverley Copnell, Ph.D., BAppSc, R.N., Monash University; and Senior Author Kathleen L. Meert, M.D., FCCM, Children’s Hospital of Michigan. Dr. October’s co-authors for the Chest Journal article include Lead Author, Amy H. Jones, M.D., and co-author Zoelle B. Dizon, BA, both of Children’s National.

Darren Klugman

Children’s National cardiac intensive care experts named to leadership of Pediatric Cardiac Intensive Care Society

Darren Klugman

Darren Klugman, M.D., medical director of the cardiac intensive care unit (ICU) at Children’s National Health System, has been re-elected to the executive board of the Pediatric Cardiac Intensive Care Society (PCICS).

Darren Klugman, M.D., medical director of the cardiac intensive care unit (ICU) at Children’s National Health System, has been re-elected to the executive board of the Pediatric Cardiac Intensive Care Society (PCICS). Klugman will serve a second term as secretary of the organization, which serves to promote excellence in pediatric critical care medicine.

Melissa B. Jones, CPNP-AC, a critical care nurse practitioner at Children’s National, received the honor of being elected Vice President of PCICS. She will take on this leadership role for two years before assuming the presidency of the society in 2020.  Another critical care nurse practitioner at Children’s National, Christine Riley, CPNP-AC, was elected to serve a two-year term on the board of directors.

Congenital heart disease (CHD) is the most common birth defect. There have been many advances in the treatment of children with cardiovascular disorders, leading to a reduction in mortality. However, the extreme complexity of this treatable disease requires specialized care from disciplines beyond cardiology, including critical care, cardiac surgery and anesthesia. PCICS was formed to provide an international professional forum for promoting excellence in pediatric cardiac critical care.

Children’s National has had a large role in PCICS since its inception in 2003. David Wessel, M.D., executive vice president and chief medical officer, Hospital and Specialty Services, was one of the founding members of the international society. Children’s National served as the host of the 13th Annual International Meeting of PCICS in December of 2017 with many experts including Richard Jonas, M.D., division chief of cardiac surgery and co-director of the Children’s National Heart Institute, and Ricardo Muñoz, M.D., division chief of cardiac critical care medicine and executive director of telemedicine, giving talks. Many Children’s National specialists again will lend their expertise to this year’s PCICS annual meeting in Miami, Fla., in December.

Tessie October

Effectively expressing empathy to improve ICU care

Tessie October

“Families who feel we’re really listening and care about what they have to say are more likely to feel comfortable as they put their child’s life in our hands a second, third or fourth time,” says Tessie W. October, M.D., M.P.H.

In nearly every intensive care unit (ICU) at every pediatric hospital across the country, physicians hold numerous care conferences with patients’ family members daily. Due to the challenging nature of many these conversations – covering anything from unexpected changes to care plans for critically ill children to whether it’s time to consider withdrawing life support – these talks tend to be highly emotional.

That’s why physician empathy is especially important, says Tessie W. October, M.D., M.P.H., critical care specialist at Children’s National Health System.

Several studies have shown that when families believe that physicians hear, understand or share patients’ or their family’s emotions, patients can achieve better outcomes, Dr. October explains. When families feel like their physicians are truly empathetic, she adds, they’re more likely to share information that’s crucial to providing the best care.

“For the most part, our families do not make one-time visits. They return multiple times because their children are chronically ill,” Dr. October says. “Families who feel we’re really listening and care about what they have to say are more likely to feel comfortable as they put their child’s life in our hands a second, third or fourth time. They’re also less likely to regret decisions made in the hospital, which makes them less likely to experience long-term psychosocial outcomes like depression and anxiety.”

What’s the best way for physicians to show empathy? Dr. October and a multi-institutional research team set out to answer this question in a study published online in JAMA Network Open on July 6, 2018.

With families’ consent, the researchers recorded 68 care conferences that took place at Children’s pediatric ICU (PICU) between Jan. 3, 2013, to Jan. 5, 2017. These conversations were led by 30 physicians specializing in critical care, hematology/oncology and other areas and included 179 family members, including parents.

During these conferences, the most common decision discussed was tracheostomy placement – a surgical procedure that makes an opening in the neck to support breathing – followed by the family’s goals, other surgical procedures or medical treatment. Twenty-two percent of patients whose care was discussed during these conferences died during their hospitalization, highlighting the gravity of many of these talks.

Dr. October and colleagues analyzed each conversation, counting how often the physicians noticed opportunities for empathy and how they made empathetic statements. The researchers were particularly interested in whether empathetic statements were “buried,” which means they were:

  • Followed immediately by medical jargon
  • Followed by a statement beginning with the word “but” that included more factual information or
  • Followed by a second physician interrupting with more medical data.

That compares with “unburied” empathy, which was followed only by a pause that provided the family an opportunity to respond. The research team examined what happened after each type of empathetic comment.

The researchers found that physicians recognized families’ emotional cues 74 percent of the time and made 364 empathetic statements. About 39 percent of these statements were buried. In most of these instances, says Dr. October, the study’s lead author, the buried empathy either stopped the conversation or led to family members responding with a lack of emotion themselves.

After the nearly 62 percent of empathetic statements that were unburied, families tended to answer in ways that revealed their hopes and dreams for the patient, expressed gratitude, agreed with care advice or expressed mourning—information that deepened the conversation and often offered critical information for making shared decisions about a patient’s care.

Physicians missed about 26 percent of opportunities for empathy. This and striving to make more unburied empathetic statements are areas ripe for improvement, Dr. October says.

That’s why she and colleagues are leading efforts to help physicians learn to communicate better at Children’s National. To express empathy more effectively, Dr. October recommends:

  • Slow down and be in the moment. Pay close attention to what patients are saying so you don’t miss their emotional cues and opportunities for empathy.
  • Remember the “NURSE” mnemonic. Empathetic statements should Name the emotion, show Understanding, show Respect, give Support or Explore emotions.
  • Avoid using the word “but” as a transition. When you follow an empathetic statement with “but,” Dr. October says, it cancels out what you said earlier.
  • Don’t be afraid to invite strong emotions. Although it seems counterintuitive, Dr. October says helping patients express strong feelings can help process emotions that are important for decision-making.

In addition to Dr. October, study co-authors include Zoelle B. Dizon, BA, Children’s National; Robert M. Arnold, M.D., University of Pittsburgh Medical Center; and Senior Author, Abby R. Rosenberg, M.D., MS, University of Washington School of Medicine.

Research covered in this story was supported by the National Institutes of Health under grants 5K12HD047349-08 and 1K23HD080902 and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences under Clinical and Translational Science Institute at Children’s National Health System grant number UL1TR0001876.

Ricardo Munoz

Ricardo Muñoz, M.D., joins Children’s National as Chief of Cardiac Critical Care Medicine, Executive Director of Telemedicine and Co-Director of Heart Institute

Ricardo Munoz

Children’s National Health System is pleased to announce Ricardo Muñoz, M.D., as chief of the Division of Cardiac Critical Care Medicine and co-director of the Children’s National Heart Institute. Dr. Muñoz also will serve as the executive director of Telemedicine Services at Children’s National, working to leverage advances in technology to improve access to health care for underserved communities and developing nations.

Within the new division of Cardiac Critical Care Medicine, Dr. Muñoz will oversee the work of a multidisciplinary team, including critical care nurse practitioners and nurses, respiratory and physical therapists, nutritionists, social workers and pharmacists, in addition to a medical staff with one of the highest rates of double-boarded specialists in cardiology and critical care.

“We are honored to welcome Dr. Ricardo Muñoz to Children’s National,” says David Wessel, M.D., executive vice president and chief medical officer of Hospital and Specialty Services. “He is a pioneer and innovator in the fields of cardiac critical care and telemedicine and will undoubtedly provide a huge benefit to our patients and their families along with our cardiac critical care and telemedicine teams.”

Dr. Muñoz comes to Children’s National from Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. During his 15-year tenure there, he established the cardiac intensive care unit and co-led the Heart Center in a multidisciplinary effort to achieve some of the best outcomes in the nation. He also is credited with pioneering telemedicine for pediatric critical care, providing nearly 4,000 consultations globally.

“Children’s National has a longstanding reputation of excellence in cardiac critical care, and I am pleased to be able to join the team in our nation’s capital to not only deliver top-quality care to patients regionally, but also around the world,” says Dr. Muñoz. “The early identification and treatment of pediatric congenital heart disease patients has made rapid improvements in recent decades, but there is a shortage of intensivists to care for these children during what is often a complex recovery course.”

Dr. Muñoz attended medical school at the Universidad del Norte, Barranquilla, Colombia, and completed his residency in pediatrics at the Hospital Militar Central, Bógota, Colombia. He continued his training as a general pediatrics and pediatric critical care fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital, and as a pediatric cardiology fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital. He then joined the faculty at Harvard Medical School and served as an attending physician in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit at Boston Children’s.

Dr. Muñoz is board certified in pediatrics, pediatric critical care and in pediatric cardiology. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Critical Care Medicine and the American College of Cardiology. Additionally, he is the primary editor and co-author of multiple textbooks and award-winning handbooks in pediatric cardiac intensive care, including Spanish language editions.