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Death and Dying Fellows Equipped with Critically Relevant Skills

Betsy Hawley, executive director at Pediatric Palliative Care Coalition, at the 3rd Session of the Death and Dying Fellowship at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on February 10.

As health systems across the country scramble to keep pace with the COVID-19 pandemic, one skill in high demand is navigating end of life conversations and decisions. The pandemic has created some new challenges for families, including often being separating from severely ill family members, and healthcare providers must manage this uncharted territory.

On April 6th, the 2020 Death and Dying Fellowship cohort finished their program prepared to handle these end-of-life conversations. Despite social distancing guidelines, the Death & Dying Fellowship faculty adapted the curriculum to translate the final three sessions into virtual discussions. 

Dr. Arnold speaks with participants during the Death and Dying Finale on April 6.

As the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, the Fellowship sessions shifted from site visits and in-person discussions at various locations such as Shadyside Hospital and the Highmark Caring Place, to virtual meetings. Guest speakers including Eric Horwith, MSW, LSW, director of growth and business development for Family Hospice, and Dr. Richard Hoffmaster of Longwood at Home answered fellows pressing questions about hospice and palliative care.

The final session of the Fellowship began with a discussion by Dr. Robert Arnold, Chief of Palliative Care and Medical Ethics at the University of Pittsburgh, and Medical Director of the UPMC Palliative and Supportive Institute. Dr. Arnold provided insight about the challenges providers face when having difficult discussions with patients and shared strategies to improve the quality of end-of-life conversations. He encouraged participants to look within themselves and determine how their experience can guide patients when faced with difficult decisions. The fellows then practiced different conversation scenarios in small breakout groups and received feedback from experts in the field.

Despite the changes, all 33 fellows continued their participation in the program and expressed their appreciation for the ability to complete the fellowship and the newfound skills they gained throughout the past few months.

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