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Parents of seriously ill children worry about their vulnerable child contracting COVID-19, whether their child's palliative care providers will be able to continue to provide the same quality of care to their child, and who can be with the child to provide comfort. For providers, shifts in healthcare provision, communication formats, and support offerings for families facing distress or loss during the pandemic may promote providers’ moral distress. This study aimed to define the ways that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted end-of-life care and approach to bereavement care in pediatric palliative care (PPC).
The Palliative Assessment of Needed DEvelopments and Modifications In the Era of Coronavirus (PANDEMIC) survey was developed to learn about the PPC experience during COVID-19 in the United States. The survey was posted with permission on seven nationally focused Listservs.
A total of 207 PPC team members from 80 cities within 39 states and the District of Columbia participated. In the majority of hospitals, admitted pediatric patients were only allowed one parent as a visitor with the exception of both parents or nuclear family at end of life. Creative alternatives to grief support and traditional funeral services were described. The high incidence of respondents’ depicted moral distress was often focused on an inability to provide a desired level of care due to existing rules and policies and bearing witness to patient and family suffering enhanced by the pandemic.
Significance of results
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on the provision of end-of-life care and bereavement for children, family caregivers, and PPC providers. Our results identify tangible limitations of restricted personal contact and the pain of watching families stumble through a stunted grieving process. It is imperative that we find solutions for future global challenges and to foster solidarity in PPC.
The death of a child has been associated with adverse parental outcomes, including a heightened risk for psychological distress, poor physical health, loss of employment income, and diminished psychosocial well-being. Psychosocial standards of care for centers serving pediatric cancer patients recommend maintaining at least one meaningful contact between the healthcare team and bereaved parents to identify families at risk for negative psychosocial sequelae and to provide resources for bereavement support. This study assessed how this standard is being implemented in current healthcare and palliative care practices, as well as barriers to its implementation.
Experts in the field of pediatric palliative care and oncology created a survey that was posted with review and permission on four listservs. The survey inquired about pediatric palliative and bereavement program characteristics, as well as challenges and barriers to implementation of the published standards of care.
The majority of participants (N = 100) self-reported as palliative care physicians (51%), followed by oncologists (19%). Although 59% of staff reported that their center often or always deliver bereavement care after a child's death, approximately two-thirds reported having no policy for the oncology team to routinely assess bereavement needs. Inconsistent types of bereavement services and varying duration of care was common. Twenty-eight percent of participants indicated that their center has no systematic contact with bereaved families after the child's death. Among centers where contacts are made, the person who calls the bereaved parent is unknown to the family in 30% of cases. Few centers (5%) use a bereavement screening or assessment tool.
Significance of results
Lack of routine assessment of bereavement needs, inconsistent duration of bereavement care, and tremendous variability in bereavement services suggest more work is needed to promote standardized, policy-driven bereavement care. The data shed light on multiple areas and opportunities for improvement.
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