As COVID-19 challenges the resilience of healthcare providers worldwide, an interprofessional team of UCF health faculty recently received a $1.5 million federal grant to help improve that resiliency.

Support for UCF’s Health and Public Safety Workforce Resiliency Training Program comes from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) and is the first earned by the university’s Academic Health Sciences Center, which brings together the colleges of Health Professions and Sciences, Medicine, and Nursing,  as well as Student Health Services.

Faculty members from the three colleges will use the money to develop an interprofessional, evidence-based virtual program for health workers to build their personal resilience and learn how they can prevent burnout, suicide, mental health conditions, and substance-use disorders.

They will pilot the program with UCF medical, nursing, physical therapy, social work and counseling students, then UCF medical residents and community healthcare providers. The goal is to produce a free online program that can be used by providers worldwide — especially those serving military veterans, uninsured and underserved populations.

“As healthcare providers, we know the risks — exposure to diseases and bacteria, long hours, stress – and we embrace them,” says Magdalena Pasarica, a professor of medicine and assistant dean who is one of the project’s leaders. “But the past two years have been different. We’ve faced a worldwide pandemic. COVID has impacted our patients, our parents, our children, their schooling. We don’t have the face-to-face support systems we once did. All of that has an impact on current providers and the providers we are training. We want to create evidence-based services that people can use to build resilience.”

HRSA awarded $103 million from the American Rescue Plan to promote mental health and reduce burnout in the nation’s healthcare workforce and those in the early stages of their careers. In addition to UCF, awardees include Duke, Emory,the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, the American Academic of Family Physicians and Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles.

UCF faculty leading the resiliency program are also leaders of an interprofessional education program (IPE) that brings together the university’s medical, nursing, physical therapy, and social work students — along with pharmacy students from the University of Florida — to develop their teamwork and communications skills to better serve their patients. Faculty members believe their experienced partnership and collaborative spirit helped secure the federal funding.

“We’ve been working together to improve IPE and health for years,” says Patrick Pabian, who leads the physical therapy program for the College of Health Professions and Sciences. “We see this as an opportunity to expand what we do. While we’re all in different areas of healthcare, we’re all seeing similar challenges with resiliency.”

Those challenges go beyond a fear of catching COVID-19. Providers must worry about whether they could be bringing home the coronavirus to their children, spouses and elderly parents. Some UCF emergency room residents actually sent their families to other states and moved in together to avoid possibly infecting loved ones. Hospitals have been filled with patients — including young people with no previous healthcare concerns — struggling to breathe. Staffing shortages, especially in areas like nursing, mean each nurse must care for more patients as COVID patients fill more hospital beds. Recent UCF social work graduates describe the need to talk to families about living wills, do-not-resuscitate orders and unexpected family loss. Physical therapy graduates are learning how to keep COVID-19 hospitalized patients from losing muscle strength when they are hospitalized for weeks and longer.

“Healthcare providers are the kinds of people who just buckle down and say, ‘I’ll get through it,’” says Denise Kay, assistant professor of medicine and another of the program’s leaders. “But we’re not superhuman. And the healthcare system is really not set up to deal with the psychological needs of its workforce. Our goal is to create a resiliency program that communicates in the best way in the real world.”

The idea of the program came from Pasarica as she participated in the College of Medicine’s Dean’s Leadership Enhancement Program. Each year, the college selects two or three faculty and staff members to be part of the medical school leadership team. Each creates a project to improve college operations, provide additional services, or expand the culture of diversity, equity and inclusion. Pasarica created the healthcare resiliency program as her project.

Across the disciplines of the AHSC, faculty say the ultimate and best outcome of the project is improved patient care.

“Improving the resiliency of the healthcare workforce improves what we can do for our patients,” says Laurie Neely, a leader of clinical education for UCF’s physical therapy program, who is helping lead the grant effort.

James Whitworth, associate professor of social work and another project lead says,“We know that the care of our clients and patients greatly improves when we work collaboratively.”