Women in Medicine Fighting COVID-19: Denege Ward-Wright, MD

Teresa Joseph
Teresa Joseph
Hospitalist Helped Develop Inpatient COVID Tele-Visits to Reduce Physician Exposure

In honor of this year’s Women in Medicine and Science month, the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix has asked a few faculty to share their inspiring stories and work that is helping our community through the coronavirus pandemic.

Denege Ward-Wright, MD
Denege Ward-Wright, MD
Denege Ward-Wright, MD

During the pandemic, Denege Ward-Wright, MD, has led the way in helping the hospital set-up telehealth and video conferences for inpatient COVID cases, which is designed to decrease physician exposure while still providing quality patient care.

Dr. Ward-Wright is a clinical associate professor in the Division of Hospital Medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix. She has been affiliated with the medical school since 2018.

Describe your experience working during the pandemic

Personally, I have been practicing for about 30 years and during my residency, HIV and AIDS were just being discovered and treated. So, I was experienced in managing patients with unknown pathology and disease process, as well as the anxiety it brings for patients and health care workers treating patients with high rates of fatality and little known treatment options. As an attending in internal medicine, I was also treating patients during the H1N1 pandemic, the threat of SARS-COV1 and MERS possible pandemics and then most recently preparing for the possible Ebola pandemic that fortunately did not materialize.

I had some anxiety and fear during those times, but I think my curiosity for infectious disease and treating patients superseded my fears. I’ve learned that you must respect diseases and take the most appropriate precautions to mitigate infections and to follow the science. During this pandemic with COVID-19, I was fortunate to have expert pulmonologists, infectious disease specialists and cardiologists who supported and educated the hospitalist in management. Our hospitalist teams were organized and we disseminated information in a controlled and precise manner to alleviate misinformation and help develop standards of care and algorithms for this population of patients. There was daily support in our management. The most amazing experience is working with nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, dieticians, clerks and environmental services who worked with these patients and provided 24-hour care with no visible anxiety and comforted these patients daily.

Working with COVID-19 patients has helped me accept the mitigation practices all of us need to take to prevent the spread. The constant politicizing of this disease has made it difficult as there are still some patients and families that cannot accept the measures needed to ensure public safety and that has also been challenging.

What advice or words of encouragement do you have for other physicians during this time of uncertainty?

Paying attention to the science and public health policies is a pathway of understanding, and that is helpful in trying to protect each other’s safety. I think if we respect this disease and accept that lifestyles have changed then it helps to move forward. Try to look at the positives that have come out of this, prioritizing what is important in our happiness such as the closeness that we developed or rediscovered in our families and communities. Also, to be mindful of our feelings and take steps to our own wellness — whether it be reading, exercising, listening to music or tapping in to whatever creative talents you may have.

What would you like the community to know about your work during this time as a woman in medicine and science?

I feel anxious at times; I am sometimes fearful of what the future may bring. However, paying attention to how patients have recovered and watching the trends improve in our cities and states brings about promise. I think women in medicine are mothers and daughters and have the same concerns for their family and communities. Also, we follow the science and public health experts to deliver the best care possible.

What does your day-to-day look like right now?

Usually, I begin my day earlier to review charts and before I do my rounds, I put on all my PPE and see my patients. Not much has changed in my rounding with patients. I’ve gotten used to talking through masks and a face shield, and I notice patients have, as well. This pandemic has made it to where I can no longer give a patient a hug. I also find myself no longer going back and forth to the patient rooms as much as before to limit exposure.

Can you describe the inpatient telehealth system you helped set-up?

Banner has been using telehealth in the ambulatory setting to facilitate patient appointments. In the inpatient setting, we have some designated rooms where there is a camera attached to the TV and physicians can communicate with those patients who are able through a secure program at a hospital workstation or website for a tele-visit. This currently operates only while in the hospital with the goal to limit exposure to COVID positive patients. It has limitations, as the patient needs to be able to communicate and is only present in designated rooms.

About the College

Founded in 2007, the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix inspires and trains exemplary physicians, scientists and leaders to optimize health and health care in Arizona and beyond. By cultivating collaborative research locally and globally, the college accelerates discovery in a number of critical areas — including cancer, stroke, traumatic brain injury and cardiovascular disease. Championed as a student-centric campus, the college has graduated 593 physicians, all of whom received exceptional training from nine clinical partners and more than 2,400 diverse faculty members. As the anchor to the Phoenix Biomedical Campus, which is projected to have an economic impact of $3.1 billion by 2025, the college prides itself on engaging with the community, fostering education, inclusion, access and advocacy.