Huddles — Not Electronic Communication — May Be the Best Way for Hospital Workers to Cope with Information Glut During COVID-19
‘Huddles make frontline employees stop, listen and pay full attention,’ Baylor University researcher says
WACO, Texas (Dec. 7, 2020) – Brief “huddles” — rather than a barrage of emails and texts about safety and risk — may be the fastest and simplest way for hospital workers to avoid communication overload as they deal with the flood of COVID-19 cases, a Baylor University researcher says.
Even in normal times, hospitals are complex workplaces, with daily demands changing as staff treat patients, and prevent physical, biological and chemical risks to themselves. But amid the pandemic, health care providers must maintain physical distancing and follow new federal recommendations for increased electronic health communications — all while keeping up with rapid changes in communication technology.
Hospital efforts to increase safety can be stifled by — and even contribute to — information overload, according to a Baylor University study, published in the journal Health Communication.
“Simply inundating hospital workers with risk information isn’t likely to make for greater understanding. Technology offers unique advantages — being more connected and available — but there also is more pressure,” said lead author Ashley K. Barrett, Ph.D., assistant professor of communication studies at Baylor University.
“Workers have different capacities to process and apply information,” she said. “They can feel overwhelmed by new information technology and prefer to communicate face to face when possible, such as at the beginning and end of shifts, to give updates on patients and answer questions.”
Workers interviewed for the study offered feedback on communication challenges as well as some simple solutions to increase their attention to safety and risk messages.
Interview Methods and Findings
For the study, researchers from Baylor and the University of Kansas interviewed 40 workers in two hospitals in the same network in the Midwest.
Researchers noted that recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention include using telehealth services over face-to-face triage and visits, an approach that could become permanent for the health profession. Patient portals are being used widely for outpatient care. For inpatient care, physicians are using tablets, smartphones and video conferencing for “virtual rounds” while the rest of the care team participates from a conference room. Nurses maintain distance in patient rooms by using tablets.
Workers interviewed in the study reported using several face-to-face channels – including brief huddles and one-on-one conversations — as well as email, video conferencing, wearable mobile communication devices, paging, texting, electronic records, whiteboards and fliers.
The interviews revealed that:
Health care providers offered some recurring suggestions to improve communication, Barrett said.
One idea is to limit risk and safety emails — especially those from management — to three take-ways and convey them with bullet points. Those messages could be discussed and reinforced in brief face-to-face encounters, such as morning huddles.
“Huddles could be the key to reducing overload and increasing safety message effectiveness in a timely way,” Barrett said. “The providers congregate on the floor to discuss updates, patient concerns and safety and risk issues. Huddles often include a diverse range of people and afford open conversations, continuity of care and accountability.
“Huddles make frontline employees stop, listen and pay full attention while also providing them access to leadership,” she said. “And messages in huddles cannot be deleted, muted or delayed.”
*Co-researchers included Jessica Ford, Ph.D., assistant professor of communication studies at Baylor University, and Yaguang Zhu, Ph.D., assistant professor of organizational communication at the University of Arkansas.
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