Caring for frontline healthcare workers in times of crisis


by Lizbeth Cahuayme-Zuniga, MD

Jun 26, 2020

COVID-19 has put clinical research under a global spotlight as we all look for answers to this pandemic that has uprooted our lives. The research community is putting a full-court press on this pandemic and those efforts have understandably captured public attention.

People suddenly find themselves with a new level of familiarity for jargon like “phase I clinical trial” and “statistically significant.” Social media feeds and group texts normally occupied with light chatter about current events or celebrity news are now jammed with commentary dissecting the latest FDA announcement and early stage trial results.

In addition to the many vaccine and drug trials that we so often hear about, there is a Herculean research effort underway to address a far less visible aspect of COVID-19 — its impact on the mental health of healthcare workers.

Lizbeth Cahuayme-Zuniga, MD, a researcher at Baylor Scott & White Research Institute and infectious disease specialist at Baylor Scott &White Medical Center – Temple, is all too familiar with the physical and mental impact viruses can have on people. Her training, both in the United States and South America, as well her clinical work, have given her a direct look at what exposure to an infectious disease can mean for both patients and frontline workers.

Those lived experiences are what motivated her to take on the role of principle investigator for a program called the HERO Registry. Dr. Cahuayme sat down with us to share more about the HERO Registry and its potential to change how we care for those working on the frontlines.

What is the HERO Registry? And why does it matter?

So much of what we read related to COVID-19 is about finding a cure — and rightly so. But the fact of the matter is we need to keep our healthcare workers and their families safe as well, and that safety isn’t just about exposure to a virus or their physical health.

Ultimately, they are working hard to protect us and if healthcare workers are the frontline and they’re hurting emotionally, not just physically, that impacts their ability to do what they have worked and trained to do for the public.

“I think this program can potentially teach us a lot about how we study and deliver healthcare in times of crisis and heightened emotional trauma.”

The HERO Registry involves multiple academic centers across the U.S. The goal is to enroll thousands of healthcare workers in order to develop a clinical database to gather insights, but also to establish a platform for different clinical trials in the future specifically for healthcare workers.

We need evidence to keep them safe and healthy. I think we will learn a lot with this new model. I think this program can potentially teach us a lot about how we study and deliver healthcare in times of crisis and heightened emotional trauma.

What do we hope to learn from this research?

I think it will definitely have an impact in the general population. This is evidence-based research, so it will teach us a lot.

This is not just giving them a “how are you feeling?” survey. The registry questions will really dig into very nuanced aspects of the daily experiences of these healthcare workers. We will capture insights and feedback from different surveys that dig into questions tied to the well-being of healthcare workers.

The surveys will inquire about their concerns about personnel protective equipment (PPE), transmissibility and immunity perceptions amongst healthcare workers. So, different topics that automatically will affect the overall population — knowing more about these aspects of their lives can help inform new programs to help these workers so they can continue to care for people coming into a healthcare facility.

Related: New research study aims to uncover the emotional impact of COVID-19

Who can join the Registry?

So, the starting point — step one for this program — is joining the Registry. Anyone interested in joining or learning more can join the Registry and they will have access to different surveys and questionnaires that help us learn more about their experiences, feelings, stresses and other things like that.

The HERO Registry is open to all people working in health care doing any job — not just licensed professionals. This can include nurses, nursing aids, respiratory therapists, first responders, patient transporters, environmental services workers, food service workers, laboratory technicians, and others.

From there, individuals involved in the Registry have an opportunity to be considered for participation in any sub-trials that take place as well. It’s all voluntary, so involvement in these sub-trials has no bearing on whether or not they can simply be a part of the Registry itself.

What’s next for frontline healthcare research?

I think this is just the beginning. We will learn more about how to protect not just the physical, but the emotional health of these workers, and not just in Texas. This study will gather data not just from Texas, but we are also getting input from healthcare workers across the U.S. I am very excited about the future of this research.

Learn more about ongoing research efforts through the Baylor Scott & White Research Institute. More information about the HERO Registry is also available here.

About the Author

Lizbeth Cahuayme-Zuniga, MD, is an infectious disease specialist on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Temple.

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