"Doing palliative care with my hands tied behind my back": telepalliative care delivery for oncology inpatients during a COVID-19 surge

Transl Behav Med. 2022 Jul 18;12(7):816-824. doi: 10.1093/tbm/ibac044.


New York City was a "global COVID-19 hotspot" in spring 2020. Many health teams rapidly transitioned to telehealth platforms. Little is known about the experiences of inpatient palliative care services who delivered telehealth services during the pandemic. This study was aimed to explore the experiences of an interdisciplinary palliative care team in meeting the holistic needs of oncology inpatients via telehealth over a 10-week period during the first COVID-19 surge. A targeted sample of interdisciplinary palliative specialists at an urban comprehensive cancer center participated in in-depth interviews that explored participants' experiences delivering physical, psychosocial, and spiritual care via telehealth. An interdisciplinary coding team followed a rigorous thematic text analysis approach and met regularly to reach consensus on emerging themes. Eleven palliative specialists from six disciplines (chaplaincy, medicine, nursing, pharmacy, physician assistant, and social work) participated. Seventy-three percent reported not receiving telehealth training prior to COVID-19 and 64% were "not at all" or "somewhat comfortable" delivering telepalliative care. Several themes were identified, including the barriers related to telehealth, the impact of telehealth on the quality of relationships with patients, their families, and coworkers, and the changes in perceived self-efficacy of fulfilling job responsibilities. Telehealth use has increased significantly during COVID-19, requiring further evaluation of its utility. Participants reported both positive and negative inpatient telepalliative care experiences associated with various domains of professional functioning, such as communication, relationships with key stakeholders, and self-efficacy. Enhanced telehealth training and support must be improved to sustain the palliative workforce and promote high-quality patient and family care in the future.

Keywords: COVID-19; Communication; Palliative care; Psychosocial care; Telehealth; Telemedicine.

Plain language summary

In spring 2020, New York City was a COVID-19 global hotspot. The palliative care team at a major cancer center rapidly transitioned to a “virtual service” (i.e., telehealth) without any physical contact with oncology inpatients for a 10-week period. No infrastructure for inpatient telehealth had been established prior to the transition. We wanted to explore how effective the interdisciplinary palliative care team felt in meeting the psychosocial, spiritual, and physical needs of patients and their families via telehealth. The palliative care team consisted of advanced practice providers, physicians, a chaplain, pharmacist, and social worker. Through participant interviews, our research team identified common themes related to the barriers and facilitators of telehealth; various effects on the quality of relationships with patients, their families, and coworkers; and diverse experiences related to the team’s perceived effectiveness in delivering telepalliative care. There are several implications to consider. Inpatient practice settings must design telehealth infrastructures to ensure both patient and provider protections when in-person care is not possible. Multilevel policies must direct investments in telehealth training for health professionals to support high-quality care during future public health crises. Research should be directed toward developing and measuring enhanced telehealth interventions to support effective and holistic virtual palliative care delivery for inpatient settings.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19*
  • Humans
  • Inpatients / psychology
  • Palliative Care / psychology
  • Pandemics
  • Telemedicine*