Is the world, and our hospitals, lonelier today than pre-COVID? The answer, sadly, is a resounding YES.

Of course, there’s the social isolation brought about by nearly two years of a global pandemic. More than one-third of Americans say they feel “serious loneliness” since the onset of COVID-19, according to Harvard University’s recent Loneliness in America report.

The Health Impact of Isolation

The issue of isolation is so pervasive, in fact, that the Harvard researchers call it an Epidemic of Loneliness. And as is true with other epidemics, this one has significant implications for us as healthcare providers.

As clinicians, we know that loneliness can be a dangerous comorbidity. It has been well documented that loneliness can exacerbate heart disease and stroke. Loneliness can lead to increased anxiety, depression, substance abuse and more.

The cost of loneliness is high,” the researchers note. “Loneliness is linked to early mortality and a wide array of serious physical and emotional problems, including depression, anxiety, heart disease, substance abuse, and domestic abuse.”

At a time when many of our hospital wards are stretched to capacity and short-staffed, the Epidemic of Loneliness is sending more patients to our doors. For these reasons, healthcare professionals need to find solutions for how to keep patients engaged.

Patients are Combating Isolation

Within those hospital doors, bedside nurses like me see the impact of isolation on our patients with each new surge in COVID. We are caring for patients who likely bring with them existing levels of loneliness, and now must face a hospital stay under COVID-induced visiting and interaction restrictions.

What does that mean for our patients? The factors that create loneliness for the general population are amplified for a hospital patient, where interaction with the outside world is limited or nonexistent. Who are these patients? They are:

The grandfather admitted with heart issues.

The young man recovering from a car accident.

The mother needing emergency surgery.

These are the faces of patients who, though not in a COVID unit, will encounter similar isolation and loneliness as those fighting COVID, due to visitation restrictions.

An article in the International Journal of Nursing Services studied data from 17 reports and found that hospital patient isolation led to negative health outcomes. The article noted: “The visiting restrictions affected the physical health of patients suffering from both COVID-19 and other conditions, (including) an increased level of observed body pain.

“Non-COVID-19 patients who had been hospitalized and undergone surgery of different kinds while visiting was restricted reported less timely access to analgesics, nausea medication and other medications than postoperative patients under normal visiting routines.”

The bottom line is that isolation is creating a sicker patient population and creating additional financial strain on hospitals and their staff. Hospitals that can implement successful patient engagement will see better outcomes overall.

It’s Time to Rethink Patient Engagement Strategies

So, how do acute care providers mitigate patient loneliness and isolation?

Just as we discovered in our own isolated homes and remote offices, there is no discounting the role that technology can play as a people connector. It can support in engaging patients and relieve some of the challenges healthcare professionals face for better outcomes.

It took the onset of COVID for many businesses to test and ultimately trust the value of using technology to connect their teams. In the same way, many hospitals have recognized the immense supplemental power of technology to empower patients to better connect, communicate and engage, especially in these unprecedented times of isolation.

Patients admitted to hospitals that have invested in interactive patient experience platforms have a distinct advantage over those facilities still relying on traditional, face-to-face interaction for patient communication. Hospitals with interactive patient experience technology have realized that, now more than ever, patients need, want and deserve the type of 21st century communication and connection tools we use every day in our personal lives.

Interactive Technology to Battle the Epidemic of Loneliness

In an environment where physical communication is hampered, and personal contact limited, a smart TV powered with interactive technology can become the eyes, ears and connection a lonely patient craves. Through it, the patient has access to distractions and diversions, entertainment and education and a connection to the outside world. Noises can be drowned out with soothing relaxation content, easily accessible from the TV main screen. Through the pillow speakers, the patient can listen to soothing, curated, therapeutic music served up from the interactive television.

With it, a patient can request a chaplain visit, pet therapy or any other assistance—simply with a few clicks of the pillow speaker connected to an on-screen patient request form. This eliminates the frustrating, hard-to-understand call to the nurses’ station. The request goes directly to the right department and is fulfilled quickly and without confusion.

Isolation is not easy to eliminate in our hospitals. But there has to be a better way to connect patients to the staff and the world outside that shut door. Until we as healthcare providers address patient isolation, we will continue to battle the Epidemic of Loneliness as we strive to care for our sick.

How is your hospital turning patient isolation into effective patient engagement?

Learn how to combat patient isolation, improve communication and reduce patient and staff frustration for better patient outcomes with these best practices. DOWNLOAD EBOOK.