2020 has been a year like no other. The coronavirus has turned our day to day upside down and put our health at the forefront of our minds.
Through all of the anxiety, fears and disruption to our lives our healthcare workers have worked tirelessly to make sure that those who need it have support throughout these difficult times. Here we shine a light on the people who often don’t get the recognition they deserve.
They tell us, in their own words, what it is like to work through a pandemic, the challenges they have faced and their hopes for the future.
Justin Lim, Clinical Lead, Healthstrong
I’m an occupational therapist and I’ve been working for Health strong for the past three years. I started out as a practitioner and then became a clinical lead which means my time is equally divided in a clinical setting, providing care to residents at aged care facilities, as well as managing my team who are at various other facilities, to ensure that operational needs are met through collaboration with external clients and internal stakeholders, such as clinical governance, workforce planning and quality.
We work across aged care providing pain management interventions. We help elderly people to manage their pain with physiotherapy, functional activities, mobility assessments and referring them to external providers so that they get the support they need but might not know is on offer.
The pandemic has been challenging for my team. The last five months has seen a huge amount of stress on team members on a personal level and as an employee. It’s been tough; there’s been increased volume of calls from practitioners inside and outside working hours. At the beginning we had team members in tears, feeling anxious about their families but it’s settled down a lot. I’ve seen our team accept the situation and the risk that they are surrounded by daily and putting that to one side to help people.
We often forget that working on the front line we put ourselves at risk. It’s only when I talk about my job to other people that I remember that I’m putting myself at risk of catching the virus every day that I go to work. To be honest, I mainly worry about the implications of putting the vulnerable people I work with at risk, more than catching the virus myself.
Our working lives have changed a lot since March. When the lockdowns first started coming into effect across Australia there was a lot of organisation to be done in a very short space of time. We had to complete a lot of learning modules from hand washing etiquette to infection control to vaccinations. They had to be done almost overnight with many of our team working outside of work hours to get it done so they could get back to helping people.
We’ve also found the requirement to wear a mask quite challenging. It’s hard to communicate with people who have hearing difficulties, dementia or are from a linguistically diverse background with a mask on. I was treating a lady today who just said, ‘oh just take that stupid thing off’ and of course you have to say ‘no, I can’t do that’. Its hard to explain to them why you can’t just make an exception. It’s part of the regulations and it’s also to keep them safe but I understand their frustration.
We expected masks to bring up some challenges, but the pandemic has thrown some unexpected obstacles in our way too. I’ve developed contact dermatitis, almost every member of my team has some form of it. It’s unavoidable really. On average we see almost 25 people a day so that means washing our hands at least 25 – 30 times a day. It’s really itchy and if I’m wearing long sleeves it’s irritating but there’s nothing, we can do about it.
We’ve also seen the pandemic have an effect on our clients. We have some clients who are panicking, very cautious about leaving their rooms and isolating themselves which, whilst understandable, is affecting them both physically and mentally. It’s important for elderly people to keep their activity up in order to maintain a good sleep cycle, keep their appetite up and maintain a level of fitness and mobility. Other clients are very understanding and have accepted the situation but it’s still a struggle for them as they can’t see their families as much as they’d like; most facilities are still under very tight restrictions and this has a huge impact on them.
As a frontline worker, our daily experiences make us realise how fortunate we are. We have all been affected by this pandemic, but we are at much less risk of getting sick than our clients and we are able to see our families and friends (when lockdown restrictions allow), we have our freedom. People in aged care, their freedom is already limited, and the pandemic has worsened that.
It affects you, working in healthcare, because we are not only providing therapy during these times but we’re often the only source of support and motivation for people who aren’t able to see their loved ones. The staff at many of the care facilities are so over subscribed and often we are the only ones who can provide one on one time and attention to our clients. We give people comfort, something to look forward to which is humbling but also a lot of responsibility to assume outside of our traditional roles. I make sure I take time to check in on the team regularly and we have R U OK days. It’s so important, healthcare workers need these more than anyone.
All this aside I feel so grateful to have team members who are passionate and interested in helping others. Even though we are putting ourselves at risk we still wake up and go to work because there are people that can be helped, it’s as simple as that.
Geri Gardner, Care Co-ordinator, CareComplete
I work as a care coordinator within CareComplete which covers a range of programs including the CarePoint program that I work on.
My clients all have very complex health issues and or chronic health problems such as diabetes, heart problems, mobility issues, chronic pain and breathing problems. They also vary in age so whilst a lot of my clients skew a little older, I currently have a client in their twenties, so it really depends.
I’m one of the Registered nurses on the team and the rest of the team are made up of occupational therapists, dietitians and nutritionists, so we’re a multi-disciplinary team which provides support for clients to help them manage their health conditions better.
A lot of clients that we work with just don’t know what services are available to them, for example some people have never seen anyone about their chronic pain; as they think they just have to live with it or that it’s part of getting old or of having a certain condition.
You can end up doing a lot of things for people, especially those who don’t have families or anyone to help them. It’s about connecting them, making sure they have a GP, or referring them for services via My Aged Care or GP Care Plans because some of them don’t have a regular practitioner so health problems can go unattended. Some people we see have depression and we can help them to realise that something can be done and that they can feel better than they do right now. The majority of people are really grateful for our help and that’s very satisfying for us.
Before the pandemic we would have face to face appointments with our clients, usually via a home visit which is such an important step in making sure the person has the support they need. We can quickly and easily assess whether they need an OT if there are issues with safety around their house. We can meet family members and see someone in their own environment which is a whole story in itself. You pick up so much information at a home visit which helps to form a care plan that is tailored to the individual.
When the restrictions first started back in March, I was very cautious about home visits and there were a couple that I cancelled. It soon became policy that home visits were not allowed to go ahead. So, some of us haven’t seen a client face to face in over five months. That’s a massive change for us. I have personally found it quite challenging to do the initial assessment over the phone because it can take up to two hours; it’s a thorough process and so much easier when you are there with them, in their environment. Being able to see their bathroom for example, do they need any special equipment? Are there stairs they need help with? You also can’t pick up on facial cues over the phone, there have been occasions where we’ve picked up on family issues just by reading a room, eg. expressions, body language. But you adapt, our clients understand that we’re doing the best we can. I always say ‘hopefully, I’ll get to come out and see you before the end of the program’. It’s nice to be able to say that, it might not happen, but we can live in hope.
In addition to those changes, in March I was also part of a team of care Coordinators who were contacting members of Victoria Police who were isolating because they had returned from overseas. We phoned them daily, for the period of their isolation, to check how they were doing and whether or not they had developed any symptoms of Covid 19 and advising them to get tested if they did.
One of the biggest changes we’ve faced as a team during the pandemic is not seeing each other in person. I used to go into head office every Monday and be able to see other team members plus we had monthly team meetings at the office which enabled us to catch up in person. . We’ve tried to counteract that by setting up a daily group on Lync to replicate some of the office chit chat and moral support. We’ve also got a ‘phone a friend’ program where you are matched with a colleague and you ring them within the fortnight to check in on them, and someone else calls you. It helps you get to know your team better and keep that connection with each other. We’ve been making extra calls to each other too; sometimes we just need to talk/ debrief. We’re dealing with our clients and their illnesses, concerns and sometimes grief on a daily basis, which can be a lot to take on. Especially for my colleagues who are also juggling home schooling and childcare along with their client calls. I rang a lady the recently whose mother had died the day before and the Covid 19 restrictions in Victoria had meant she wasn’t able to visit her during her last few weeks in hospital and that her funeral had to go ahead with only 10 people which was very distressing for her and compounded her grief.
It’s can be tough, but we have to remain professional when speaking to clients who are struggling to cope; we’re making extra calls to those people, just checking in to make sure they’re ok.
We deal with some clients where English isn’t their first language and we’ve had to make sure that they are aware of what care is still available during restrictions. It’s so confusing for them as things can get lost in translation re Government guidelines and other information, so we have to make sure they about know things like cough etiquette, how to wash their hands as per the hand hygiene protocol, not to shake hands and how to social distance properly. A lot of our clients didn’t know any of this because of language barriers. I had one client who thought the hospitals were shut. In cases like these we’re able to point them to resources in their own language, so that they can understand how to protect themselves and their families from potential Covid 19 infection.
The positive part here is that even over the phone we can help. It’s been about encouraging people, a lot of my clients, especially the more vulnerable ones, don’t want to leave the house – they’re scared. I had a client recently who had breathing problems but didn’t want to go to hospital because she thought she’d die if she did. But she needed an inhaler as she’d run out. So, I let her know that she could ring her GP and get the prescription re-issued over the phone then the pharmacy could deliver the inhaler to her home. She didn’t know that, and it made the difference between her managing her condition at home or potentially being admitted to hospital. We had another client who didn’t want anyone coming into their house due to the risk of Covid 19. It was arranged for an Occupational Therapist to meet them outside their house, socially distancing so they could assess the safety of their entrance way and arrange for rails to be installed, which could make the difference between a fall and admission to hospital or not. We’ve had a client whose physiotherapist was able to watch / assess her mobility over zoom and write her an exercise plan based on that. People have been really innovative like that and it’s our job to let people know that there is still help available. Our team are doing everything we can to make people as safe as possible at home and feel supported during this anxious time.
Lauren Marino, Health Concierge Clinician, Health Concierge team
I work on the health concierge team and I’ve been with Medibank for about a year. I work in a team of clinicians, I’m a dietician myself. We contact our members before or after a hospital stay to give them information on resources and other services, we can provide them from Rehabilitation at home, CareComplete referrals and lots of other external resources and additional information that they might not know about.
Our service has always been over the phone, so the pandemic hasn’t really changed how we interact with members however the main difference for us is that we aren’t going into the office anymore. We are all virtual which has made it quite tough on the team. Some of the calls we have are very emotional, very sad. It’s hard not having people to bounce off if you’re feeling overwhelmed. It’s important to us that we keep our morale up so that we can give our members the best possible experience.
I’m part of the health and wellbeing team for health concierge and we’ve been creating health challenges for our team members to keep us happy and engaged. We’ve been doing gratitude challenges, step challenges, group workouts – keeping ourselves uplifted. On any given day we can speak to many members and each one deserves the same amount of energy which can be intense so these challenges and group activities really help us deliver that service.
At the start of the pandemic, all non-essential hospital admissions were cancelled but now we are seeing people rescheduling their treatments or changing hospitals because they are scared which is understandable. We can help by talking through their concerns, referring them back to their surgeons to get the information they need and how to take precautions when they go to hospital. We also can refer them to resources such as Smiling Mind or the Medibank Mental Health Support phone line to help them reduce their stress of going into hospital and talk to them about their mental health.
I also work on the Covid Health Assist Cohort where we reach out to our members who are vulnerable, maybe they are elderly, living alone or undergoing some sort of treatment, to see how they are going through this time and offer them help and support. It’s also important to ensure that these members are looking after their health and going to their regular doctors’ appointments. For some members that have been in hospital, we’re able to refer them to Medibank’s Rehabilitation at home services so they can have treatment in their home and keep pressure off the hospital system, for other its letting them know about Medibank’s virtual GP service if they need a prescription filled. For some we have been able to send them a Woolworths box full of essentials if they can’t get out to the supermarket. A lot of people were surprised that a health insurer would do this for them. Even if we were speaking to people who were doing fine, they are often really grateful to know that Medibank cares and that we are checking in on them. That’s heart-warming.
Whilst some of our calls can be difficult, very sad and intense some of them really shine a light on how resilient people can be. I spoke to a 94 year old lady the other day who told me she’s keeping her spirits up during the Stage 4 lockdown in Victoria by ballroom dancing with her husband every night. I mean, you can’t beat that can you? In other cases, it’s just great to know that we can help make a real difference to someone’s life. I spoke to a lady recently who had been to hospital for lung disease and had had no follow up appointment booked by her doctor, she didn’t know the next steps and she was pretty frantic. I was able to refer her on to our at home services who let her know about the help she could receive to aid her recovery. She didn’t even know that it was available to her and she was so grateful. To be able to provide people with something that you know if really going to help them, it makes it all worth it.
Leisa Fifield, Resource Line, Medibank Mental Health Phone Support Service
I work on the Medibank Mental Health Phone Support service. It’s a pretty new offering, starting back in January before coronavirus was at the forefront of many of our minds, although that is of course now a big topic of conversation.
Our service not only lets members call us with any mental health issues they might be facing, it lets us offer follow up calls to clients who want them and we’ve found those callbacks to be a really valuable tool to support our callers. The road to recovery from things like depression and anxiety often isn’t straightforward and being motivated to reach out for support is often a big factor in recovery. Being able to call people back and check in on their progress, to offer encouragement or extra support can help people finally get the help that they need.
It’s so great to be able to check in, see if there has been any improvement and adjust their action plan if they are still struggling. Working in mental health triage can sometimes feel like reading a really good novel and not ever getting to the last pages but now we do, we get to close the loop to know that you have helped someone and that their life is going to be different now is why we do this.
What I have found since the pandemic has become more prominent is that coronavirus is not usually the primary reason for the call. However, fears around Covid emerge in about 80% of the calls regarding depression and anxiety. It’s a big factor that is contributing to how people are feeling and the restrictions have been quite isolating.
I think the fact that we are here 24/7 is really important to the people that need us. We are there at 2am, when people are feeling vulnerable and lonely. When it’s dark and everyone is asleep, we are there to pick up the phone and offer our support.
Face to face counselling is extremely effective so we are finding that recovery from mental health issues is taking longer due to coronavirus making that hard to access for a lot of people. And it’s hard to explain that to people because the idea that their recovery may take longer because of the pandemic feels very negative to them. So that’s a challenge.
What I try to do is to flip the negatives and turn them into positives when it comes to the changes our callers are facing due to coronavirus. We have spoken to people about the benefits of slowing down, of sitting with their thoughts or taking time to care for themselves. However that is getting more difficult because the situation is going on a lot longer than any of us anticipated. It’s getting harder to ask people to find the positives.
Something that is quite positive thought is that usually when people call us, we’re not experiencing the challenges that they are but this time we can, at least in part, empathise with their situation when it comes to struggling with lockdown and the effects it is having on their mental health. It helps people to know that we understand how they feel. We are all suffering through this pandemic together so we at least have that in common.
We’ve nearly always worked from home so the pandemic hasn’t changed much there, however what we’re not used to is not being able to blow off steam after work or on the weekend as easily. Not being able to duck out of the house took a toll on a lot of us – when you’re working from home and you’re listening to people all day, it can be difficult. We’ve relied a lot on each other, my team leader has been a huge support. We’ve cried to each other, talked about being fed up, having no more left to give and talking to each other really does help. What we’ve realised is you have to create an environment that supports your health and wellbeing and being part of this amazing team has been a part of that. From the very beginning Medibank has really promoted this feeling that we are all in this together, that nothing is impossible and that we can work around these restrictions to keep on keeping on.
I spoke to a guy recently who was really struggling with anxiety, all his family were overseas and he had no one to lean on during these times so he called us. He had never contacted a support service before and really didn’t want to speak to a counsellor. In just twenty minutes of us talking he had done a complete 180 and said he was feeling much less anxious and bogged down. And I was able to say to him, ‘that’s what talking to a counsellor could do for you’. It makes you feel so much excitement that your effort and energy have helped someone turn around. When I offered him a callback he was so grateful and so surprised that we were able to do that. It was one of the best calls I’ve had and I’ve been here for nearly ten years. To hear him turn around like that and hear his perspective change, that’s such a lovely feeling.