By Neil Thornbury
Although this pandemic is far from over, it is necessary for every healthcare organization to continue to plan ahead based on multiple scenarios and outcomes. But first, we must evaluate the current situation, and then we will discuss possible outcomes and sound strategies to come out better on the other side.
Since its onset, we have put forth extraordinary efforts to implement a focused, rapid and deliberate plan to care for and address this new community-based virus. Telehealth changed from something we were looking at “in the near future” to a fully launched product in our clinics within a matter of days. A local COVID-19 hotline was implemented to triage patients over the phone to help mitigate the spread. Suddenly, virtual visits, drive-through testing, screening at the point of entry, providing iPads so patients can “visit” with loved ones, and external triage tents all blossomed overnight. And all of these measures – focused on safety and compassion – will define the way we provide care going forward.
While advancements in medical technology and ongoing research have been tremendous, healthcare as a whole, admittedly, has been notoriously slow to adapt for customer convenience. We can do better.
We have witnessed thousands of patients deferring necessary healthcare services over the last few months. Many continue to be apprehensive, and rightly so, about their overall safety. In saying that, our patients and community will continue to need us for many of their healthcare needs moving forward. Babies will continue to be born; oncology patients will still need treatment; children and adults with chronic conditions like diabetes, COPD, and congestive heart failure will still need our help to manage their illnesses. These are just a few examples of the care that will not wait for the COVID-19 pandemic to pass.
Preparation and Challenges
While we regularly conduct drills so that we are ready to handle emergencies and disasters such as mass casualty situations or severe weather, candidly, there was no drill for a global pandemic. We were forced to learn and adapt day-by-day, and at times, hour-by-hour. Compared to our counterparts in metropolitan areas, we had the good fortune of time and advance warning before the virus made its way to our community. We were able to plan and prepare for the worst, while always hoping for the best. With all that we have learned over the past few months, we now have a better understanding of global pandemics and are now better prepared than ever before to handle this type of emergency.
As we work to restart our regular clinical services, we would be remiss in squandering the rapid advancements and innovations that we’ve undertaken to lessen the impact of the virus. It is certain that we will continue to treat COVID-19 patients, and we will likely face periodic supply challenges, but I am confident in our ability to secure the necessary items to treat our patients and protect our team members. Another inevitability is that we will need to think differently about our processes and procedures than we did before COVID-19.
As we mentioned, many of our patients are scared. They have concerns and anxiety about leaving the safety of their homes and returning to a clinical setting. We know that, especially with all of the precautions in place, that a healthcare setting is one of the safest places to be in our community. Now we must work hard to put our patients’ fears at ease to avoid collateral damage when this is over (such as the return of diseases that were previously eradicated).
But when will it be over? That is a question that not even the experts at the highest levels can agree on at this time.
What I do believe we can all agree on is that consumers certainly have anxiety and apprehension when it comes to seeking healthcare during and directly following this current pandemic. We must be sensitive to these concerns and create new processes so that fear is not keeping them away from the care they may need.
Strategizing for Change
We have talked about “consumerism” in healthcare for years, but as an industry we have struggled to change the patient experience. Candidly, we struggle with wait times in certain areas, our bills are difficult for patients to understand, our facilities are tough to navigate, pre-authorizations are cumbersome, communication and connecting to our customers is occasionally frustrating, and often our processes are not designed for the patients’ convenience but rather for the convenience of our organization. It is not my intent to be overly critical, but rather to be transparent so that we can develop solutions to address those areas of opportunity.
Whether it is how we deliver services or the way we interact with our patients, I believe we must use this moment to create a new and inspiring patient experience. With that in mind, I have directed our leadership teams to continue to develop a sound restart plan with a specific focus on how we interact with our patients and their families throughout the healthcare process. I have asked them to be creative, to think differently, and to think bigger. The only restriction on ideas is that they must align with our strategy to create a better, safer healthcare.
We will utilize all methods to accomplish our goal of reimagining the healthcare experience. That includes assembling cross-functional teams from multiple areas, developing collaborative problem solving sessions, researching the world’s top health systems and other industries for novel tactics and ideas, and ultimately, identifying and deploying new, innovative approaches to how we interact with our patients, families, and community partners.
This process will challenge us to move away from methods and traditions that we have had in healthcare for over 50 years, but I am confident we will be successful. Going back to “better than normal” means that we will continue our efforts to be a health system that is more equitable, convenient, engaging, and prepared.
Back to Better
Without a doubt, we are all anxious for our lives to return to some semblance of normalcy. We look forward to the days when we aren’t separated by masks and six feet; when we can gather with friends and family to laugh and sing and celebrate at special occasions, and when we can attend concerts in the park, and cheer at sporting events.
When it comes to healthcare, though, there must be no going back to the way things were before. As it relates to customer service and the patient experience, the pandemic helped us to recognize that what we and our customers considered to be acceptable was simply not good enough. In fact, it has provided a tremendous opportunity to strengthen our processes in order to deliver safer, better healthcare.
Neil Thornbury is chief executive officer of T.J. Regional Health.