Access Now: AORN COVID-19 Clinical Support

Archive February 2021 XXII, No. 2

Staffing: A Clear Communication Upgrade

See-through masks help us care for hearing-impaired patients.

Katy Trapp

Katy Trapp, BSN, RN-BC


Dale Gauding/Sentara Healthcare
REVEALING FEATURES Sentara Healthcare's ethics team worked with a community volunteer "Mask Force" to design and produce transparent masks for the hearing impaired.

For most patients, wearing a surgical mask is a minor inconvenience and a necessary part of receiving care in the era of COVID-19. For patients with a hearing impairment who rely on reading lips, however, a mask effectively severs their communication lifeline. With a small tweak to the standard mask design, you can adhere to critical infection prevention protocols and ensure hearing-impaired patients receive clear information about their care. That's the beauty of a see-through surgical mask, a face covering with a clear vinyl window that allows patients to read their providers' lips.

Organic origins

Like so many great ideas, this one came about organically for us. During a monthly staff meeting, one of our team members mentioned window masks she'd seen on Facebook. Initially, we hoped to simply purchase the masks outright. But during the critical shortage of PPE early in the pandemic, we couldn't find them anywhere. So, we did what any creative and industrious team of healthcare professionals would do: We made the masks ourselves.

A member of our ethics team, Rebecca Tall, was volunteering with a sewing group in the community who pulled together at the start of the COVID-19 crisis to sew masks for health care providers. They called themselves the "Mask Force" and they designed and produced some prototype window masks for us to try. We settled on a preferred design and then took over much of the production ourselves with the help of Grace Donatelli, a retired seamstress and friend of our department.

Over time, we produced more than 200 window masks and shared them across our 12 Sentara hospitals to ensure our providers, chaplains, patient advocates and other staff have access to these tools. The masks were an immediate hit and we kept on making them as time permitted, eventually hitting the 500 mark. In fact, we recently sent a shipment to a physician group at a local ASC to help them communicate with elderly patients who were not only having trouble understanding the physicians, but who were also nervous and in desperate need of little non-verbal things — like a reassuring smile — that weren't possible when the providers' entire face was covered with a mask. We're currently getting requests from a wide range of people who interact with patients, from hospital chaplains to rehab and physical therapy providers. The masks have become a regular tool in our "Communication in a Box" kits that help providers communicate with patients who have hearing impairments or limited English proficiency.

A patient was in tears over how the masks improved interactions with our physicians and nurses.

You don't need a manufacturing plant to create your own window masks but, if you're interested, there are certain things you should know before taking on the task.

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