Bon Secours Mercy Health may not see complete COVID-19 rebound this year, CEO says

When John Starcher took the helm of Cincinnati-based Bon Secours Mercy Health in 2018, he was tasked with leading a new organization formed through the merger of Marriottsville, Md.-based Bon Secours Health System and Cincinnati-based Mercy Health. The president and CEO has had a new challenge in recent months — leading the 50-hospital health system during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mr. Starcher said the health system — which has 60,000 employees across seven U.S. states and Ireland — has seen a relatively steady and consistent infection rate during the pandemic, with 50 to 450 infected patients per 100,000 people in each of its markets.

He said Bon Secours Mercy Health has used IT, such as an online chat bot/virtual triage website feature, to help patients identify COVID-19 symptoms and determine any needed care. He also credited the health system's supply chain team with preparing for COVID-19 early, resulting in ample personal protective equipment supplies.

And now as Bon Secours Mercy Health has cared for more than 6,000 COVID-19 patients since mid-March, Mr. Starcher said he is not focused on a potential second wave of the coronavirus, but rather preparing for a new normal and ensuring communities are safe.

Here, he talks with Becker's Hospital Review about those preparation efforts, as well as the organization's Ireland operations and initiatives that have made a difference.

Editor's note: Responses were lightly edited for length and clarity.

Question: How is Bon Secours Mercy Health preparing for the new normal with COVID-19?

John Starcher: Preparation is all consuming, [crossing] every aspect of our ministry, every aspect of our operations. With respect to our workforce, we acted quickly and furloughed an initial wave of 700 employees in late March, and we redeployed about another 4,000 to serve in other areas of the organization. We also transitioned more than 6,000 employees to working from home. Thankfully, we have a secure IT platform/system that allows that. We are reexamining how and when we bring groups of associates back to meet ministry needs. Our sense is some of them will continue to work from home indefinitely or for the foreseeable future.

Like most health systems, when this started in mid-March, we were seeing volume declines of 50 percent to 60 percent across the ministry. Since then, we have rebounded and continue to rebound as many have. The rebound is variable by market. Bon Secours Mercy Health overall is probably back to 20 percent [declines] — better than 50 percent or 60 percent but nonetheless considerable. I do not think we will completely rebound this year. I think we will continue to see a full recovery, but I do not think we will get back to pre-COVID volumes.

Also, virtual care made a tremendous pivot in the early days of the pandemic. Virtual visits went from less than 9,000 virtual visits in all of 2019 to 9,000 a day in 2020. These have consistently been strong but dropped off a little as we reopened some clinician offices.

Question: What is one initiative that may have seemed small but ended up making a big difference in the organization during the pandemic?

JS: There are probably no less than several dozen. Overall, it has to do with blocking and tackling and being strong. In IT infrastructure, we made a huge investment in making sure the system is sound and capable. We wouldn't have been able to pivot more to virtual care without that. Also, many systems struggled to get needed supplies, but we have never once been short on supplies of personal protective equipment, because we had a fundamentally sounds supply chain. Our supply chain saw this COVID-19 crisis coming as early as January and made sure the supply chain was open and available. Human resources, marketing and communications has also had a success story. Pre-COVID, we probably had anywhere from two to five weekly publications for associates and leaders, but we were doing as many as 25 communications across all organizational levels once the pandemic began. All of those little things were vital.

Question: In July, Bon Secours Mercy Health completed its merger with Bon Secours Health System in Dublin, Ireland's largest private healthcare provider. How has COVID affected the Ireland operations?

JS: We were able to learn a lot in the early days of the pandemic by working with our ministry in Ireland. What has been unique is the way Ireland has public and private healthcare sectors. The private hospitals worked with the public healthcare sector on an agreement for private hospitals to take on public sector patients. As a result of the agreement, which expires at the end of June, Bon Secours Mercy Health was able to break even because we were compensated by Ireland's public government agency, the Health Service Executive.

Question: What advice do you have for other hospitals navigating the pandemic?

JS: Be prepared at all times. You need to expect the unexpected. Things are not always going to be the same.


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