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Interview by Scott Briggaman of WPTF Radio.

Dr. Samuel McLean’s Interview with WPTF: Part 1 of 2

Scott Briggaman (SB): Doctor, before we get to the conception of all of this, how are you and your family — even the family dog testing positive for COVID-19 — how are you guys holding up right now?

Samuel McLean (SM): Thank you so much for asking. We are all doing great! We were sick for a few weeks back in March, but we were very fortunate to recover and are all feeling fine.

SB: How did you go about conceiving this idea to connect front line healthcare workers with these so-important resources and healthcare organizations during this shutdown?

SM: Yeah, I think it is a really difficult time for so many folks in our society these days, and certainly for first responders and healthcare workers. Working in COVID unit at UNC in March, I really appreciated and experienced first-hand these different stresses that COVID workers are under: The anxieties about getting sick yourself, the much greater fear about infecting or harming someone close to you — the loved ones, a lot of attempts to isolate yourself from family and other people that you know. There is a lot of isolation. And then, just seeing so much sadness and so many difficult circumstances that patients are in — it’s a lot right now.

And so, experiencing that, and hoping that we could do a little more to support the mental health of our healthcare workers, I reached out to a colleague of mine at Google, Obi Felten, who I’d had the chance to work with in the past. She leads one of the companies, sort of the Google/Alphabet umbrella, and I contacted her about developing an app. I was very fortunate that she was all in.

And so, working with some colleagues, friends from academic medical centers: Harvard, Cooper, and Brown and a variety of places together, with a whole slew of fantastic folks from UNC, and then dozens of volunteers from across Google and Alphabet who spent a ton of time this spring — we all went really pedal-to-the-metal in April, May, and June trying to develop this app. They developed the app on a platform they have called Google Cloud — a computing platform they have — and they were able to get this together to launch nationally today.

SB: And the app is available through the App Store, Google Play Store in the U.S. and the good news is: It is free of charge to first responders, healthcare workers, and their organizations. Did you witness anything firsthand on how this is impacting front line healthcare workers and others confronting patients on a daily basis with this?

SM: Yeah for sure. I think that, even for someone who has worked in the emergency department for 20 years and seen a lot, this COVID time is really something different. It can be somewhat overwhelming at times to see people who are so sick, or to be struggling with so much, and I really see it on the faces of my colleagues in the COVID area. People who are living apart — I have a friend who is living apart from a child they have who has special needs, and is particularly vulnerable to COVID, so they haven’t seen their young child in weeks. Or a friend of mine that has a spouse with metastatic cancer and is very concerned about spreading [COVID-19]. People are under individual challenges that are very heavy.

The app work in this way: If you download the app, the app every week pushes you to a quick, 5-minute survey, asks about anxiety, depression, sleep, stress, those types of symptoms, gives you a brief summary report of how you are doing and then lets you see trends over time, and then also lets you really easily connect to different mental health resources, that are free or low-cost to COVID workers and first responders.

Dr. Samuel McLean’s Interview with WPTF: Part 2 of 2

SM: We tried to set it up so it would be really easy to use and it will allow people to check on their mental health at a time that a lot of studies now have shown that one out of four first responders or COVID workers is dealing with really substantial anxiety or depression, and two out of five aren’t really sleeping well. We just want to help those folks connect to resources, and connect earlier, and make it easier when people are working so many extra hours and doing so many additional things, and make it easier for them to take care of themselves.

Obviously, as we all know, when it’s a little bit harder to do something, it’s harder for all of us to do it.

SB: When you came up with the mental health self-assessments, is there a standard line of questions you go for when you are looking at mental health assessments, or do we kind of re-vamp things amid a pandemic?

SM: Yeah, that’s a great question. We really picked very tried-and-true, simple, short assessments that have been developed and tested for many years. We tried to pick things that were the most common version — that are really well established. And a friend of mine, who is a leading expert at this at Harvard was really helpful in designing our survey to be short, sweet, and really get to the heart of allowing people to get a quick feel for where things are with how they are doing.

SB: Yeah, I would imagine you would want first responders and healthcare workers to know what they are feeling is 100% normal in times like this.

SM: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think that if there are any opportunities among this pandemic, I think that one of them becoming more comfortable with the fact that we are all human. People feel comfortable talking about their blood pressure or getting treatment for their blood pressure, but unfortunately not as often about their depression or their anxiety, and they are just all parts of being human. And there is really no difference in trying to hopefully continue to chip away at that stigma, which really doesn’t make any sense and has been around for far too long.

SB: Public support for the Heroes Health app: people can take part in this, contribute by visiting the fundraising page.

SM: Yep, from our, we have a link to a GoFundMe page, and if people are in a position to do so, put a few dollars there, that’s great, but I understand that it varies by person. We’re just really excited to get the app out to first responders and healthcare workers.

SB: How much data do you need to see what kind of impacting this is having on all our front line workers?

SM: Yeah, that’s a great question. I am hoping that within a few weeks after launch we will start to have more data, and really we want to — as we are going throughout this process — to be continually improving what we can provide in terms of our… we’ve got a whole team that links to resources. We have a component of the app that allows organizations to partner with us. So, either hospitals or EMS agencies, can partner with us, and as a partner organization. And that is also free. They can get data on their workers that helps them understand where people are. Because one thing that we are also finding is the organization really doesn’t have any idea on how workers are doing and really flying blind. Sort of like an airplane with no instruments.

Miami is, unfortunately, at 100% capacity in ICUs (if not beyond it), for example. But, if you went to a hospital in Miami, and said “How are your nurses doing in your ICU?” or “How are the environmental services folks doing — those wonderful folks that are cleaning all of these COVID rooms to making it safe for the next person that comes in?”. They wouldn’t have any information, and we think that that is really important for a community to take care of each other.

The app also gives the organization anonymous, group-level information that would allow them to get a sense of where things are and if people need extra support and assistance, in terms of, like, “Wow the nurses. We’ve got to bring in some extra nurses because they are exhausted and not really sleeping and are getting to the point of really struggling”. So, trying to link up with organizations to empower them to take care of each other. We also ask organizations to sign up. We usually ask to provide a mental health worker, but then can reach out to people who chose to share their information and are struggling.