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The Role of Interprofessional Education and Practice with Covid-19

Author: Dr. Gérard Filies is a senior lecturer in the Interprofessional Education Unit at the University of the Western Cape.

Interprofessional Education should be incorporated into teaching and learning opportunities for qualified health professionals in the field as part of interprofessional learning, says UWC’s Dr. Gérard Filies.

(Published - 7 May 2020)

Interprofessional Education (IPE) should be incorporated into teaching and learning opportunities for qualified health professionals in the field as part of interprofessional learning (IPL). IPE is thus a leading approach to facilitate student learning for future interprofessional teams in addressing the complex health needs of the community.

Students familiar with this approach as part of their education are more likely to become collaborative interprofessional team members who show respect and positive attitudes towards fellow colleagues in hospitals or clinics. The World Health Organization (WHO) approves of the term Interprofessional Collaborative Practice (IPCP) as a concept that includes the preferred behaviour of working together resulting from these interprofessional education and learning approaches.

The COVID-19 crisis emphasises the need for IPE and IPCP. The Coronavirus causes cold-like symptoms which can include a fever, coughing and respiratory problems. Many people who get infected with this new virus will tend to display mild symptoms, and most are expected to make a full recovery. This new virus appears to pose a particular risk for elderly people and those with pre-existing illnesses.

Currently there is no cure, in the same way that there is no cure for the common cold. People who suspect that they may be infected with the Coronavirus are asked to self-quarantine or contact their medical doctor or medical facility for advice. In severe cases, people are hospitalised and the symptoms are treated.

This treatment might include a medical doctor and nursing staff. In some cases it might include another health professional for another procedure, but often consultations and interventions are done in isolation from the other medical staff. However, this approach isn’t working. The WHO stated in 2018 that, “Without quality health services, universal health coverage will remain an empty promise.”

The WHO further reported that inaccurate diagnosis, medication errors, inappropriate or unnecessary treatment, inadequate or unsafe clinical facilities or practices, or providers who lacked adequate training and expertise prevailed in all countries. The WHO and others have repeatedly stressed the need for interprofessional education and practice as a way to not only improve quality of care for patients, families and communities, but also for global health populations. The benefits of healthcare teams working together are numerous. When a collaborative culture in the workplace is created together with the correct communication strategies and technology to support this culture, the health outcomes of the patient automatically improve. Other benefits include an improvement in patient care, reduction in medical errors, faster treatment for patients, reduction in inefficiencies and healthcare costs and the improvement of staff relationships and job satisfaction in general.

An interprofessional team could comprise the following disciplines in handling a patient infected with the coronavirus: The nurse plays a key role in the treatment of COVID-19 infection. He or she is responsible for the admission of the patient, isolating the patient and drawing up nursing care plans. The nurse also orientates the patient to their surroundings in hospital, capturing the patient’s history and main complaints and managing the basic symptoms while waiting for the doctor.

The doctor in turn provides prescribed treatment through holistic care and can request treatment from other healthcare professionals like specialists. For example, a doctor may refer a patient to a dietician to meet the patient’s nutritional needs.

The pharmacist can be found in hospitals, primary healthcare clinics or in retail settings. Many patients have made first contact through a retail pharmacy during the lockdown due to the ease of access. Although pharmacists do not screen patients, there is a role to play in identifying potential patients who could test positive for COVID-19. They can offer counselling, refer patients to other healthcare professionals and administer medication.

The social worker is key in assessing the patient's environmental, psychological and social wellbeing. The social worker also needs to explore the patient’s physical environment, social relationships and emotional response to determine whether these circumstances will either enable or serve as a barrier to healing upon diagnosis. Social workers can also assist with financial or employment barriers, and if the patient is a social grant recipient, make appropriate arrangements to access grants on behalf of the patient.

Physiotherapists are also needed if the patient requires invasive or intensive airway treatment in the case of COVID-19 symptoms. They would work in conjunction with both doctors and nurses. In mild to moderate stages of COVID-19, normal oxygen measures can be applied to assist patients. If the patient has severe pneumonia, breathing exercises and other physiotherapy treatment can be used to assist and educate the patient.

The occupational therapist is also an important team member, since the patient still needs to be able to perform their daily activities while in hospital. This will include assistance with washing, eating, dressing, using the toilet and mobility.

With an interprofessional healthcare team, a comprehensive package of services are offered to the patient. This results in much more effective management of the patient while hospitalised, which will in turn result in a much faster turnaround time for discharge to make space for other patients.

With an interprofessional approach, the team integrates and values, as a partner, the input of a patient in the treatment to be received. It is important that the patient maintains control over the care he or she receives. This means sharing the knowledge and skills of team members to arrive at a realistic, team-shared plan of care. This includes access to the resources needed to achieve the goals of the treatment plan. In patient-client-centred collaborative practice, patients must be seen as experts in their own lived experiences, and as being critical in shaping realistic plans of care for themselves.

Beyond COVID-19, interprofessional education and practice is the engine needed to transform the health system for better health outcomes for patients and a healthier society. 


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