For Geisinger CEO Dr. Jaewon Ryu, there is a silver lining to the pandemic

Jaewon Ryu, MD, has helmed Danville, Pa.-based Geisinger since 2018, overseeing a nine-hospital system with nearly 24,000 employees, about 4,000 of whom are working remotely.

Dr. Ryu, an emergency room physician, joined Geisinger in September 2016 as executive vice president and CMO. He served as interim president and CEO beginning in December 2018,  before taking the top role permanently in summer 2019. 

Becker's sat down with Dr. Ryu to learn what is top of mind right now, how his organization has responded to the pandemic, and the bright spots of the last two years. 

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

Question: What is one question you want to be answered right now — and why?

Dr. Jaewon Ryu: When will we be able to put COVID-19 behind us? That's something I know a lot of our employees wonder about. The ripple effects are far reaching. It's beyond just patient care. We're seeing ripple effects across everything. I was rounding at some of our facilities over the last week and a half and one of the themes is: Even when you're able to get someone placed — let's say they need to go to a post-acute recovery area — it's tough to get them transported because there aren't enough drivers for paramedics and ambulances. If you had asked two years ago, there's no way anyone could have predicted some of the dynamics going on. We still see a lot of impact from COVID taking place.

Q: What traits do you most value in the people working around you?

JR: I think it depends on the role. But I think some traits are probably universally very valuable and helpful, such as adaptability. Being able to adapt despite ever changing circumstances and dynamics and being comfortable with that. It's one thing to be able to manage through it. It's another thing to be able to embrace changes and be able to roll with the punches. I think that's infinitely helpful in a time like this. But even aside from COVID, given where the industry continues to evolve, I think those are truly valuable, leadership traits, and general traits for our workforce.

Also, being receptive to thinking about things differently. Rethinking routines is something we encourage throughout the organization because the same ways we've been accustomed to doing things — not just at Geisinger, but in the industry —for the last X years isn't necessarily how we'd like to keep doing it going forward, or how we are going to be able to keep doing it going forward.

Q: What is one thing you stopped doing during the pandemic that you won't bring back?   

JR: The automatic reflex need for space is going to look different. We've seen that whether it's in terms of office space or even to some degree clinical space. How we think about space use is very different. Everybody talks about virtual care, but even in terms of work from home arrangements, we were able to terminate 12 different leases across our system, and able to repurpose a lot of that office space into clinical care space. So, I think how we view space as an organization — and even as an industry — I think is forever changed. I don't see that one coming back.

Q: Is there anything you started doing during the pandemic? 

JR: This has really opened the door for mobility in the labor workforce that transcends location and geographic boundaries. We've hired many people even from prior to COVID who don't necessarily live and work in our service area, but we're able to have them be remote. That has accelerated with COVID as employers and employees are more comfortable with remote working. A lot of our folks are still able to maintain a tether to the community and the area. They come in regularly — maybe it's several times a week, maybe it's several times a month. But I think that flexibility and fluidity of where people live versus where they work — I think that's another one that's not going anywhere and got kicked into a different gear during COVID.

Q: Geisinger announced a vaccination mandate in August. How did the mandate go?

JR: It went better than we thought it would. We announced Aug. 25 and we had a deadline of Nov. 1 where folks had to be meeting the policy. If they were not compliant with our policy by Nov. 1, then we did end up terminating about 150 people, which, for us, ends up being about .6 percent of our workforce. We're on the other side of that now, so everyone at Geisinger is compliant with our policy. Yes, we lost 150 or so people, but by virtue of getting our workforce vaccinated, we also have about half as many people out on quarantine now as we did weeks ago. That's at a time when community prevalence of COVID has stayed flat or even gone up, and yet our workforce prevalence has gone down and those out on quarantine has gone down. We may have lost 150 people, but we gained back people because there are that many fewer on quarantine. We're super grateful and appreciative for our folks stepping up to that challenge.

Q: Any advice for peers?

JR: There's always a silver lining and there's always a glass half full. I think that's true whether you're talking about the mandate or even the pandemic. There are things that have become possible as a result of the things COVID has thrown our way or even the vaccine challenges. It's made life more difficult and challenging. But at the same time, it's a time to lean in and reinforce and double down on your values. For us, safety is a core value, and it was a good opportunity to remind our folks we're an organization based on science, we're an organization based in safety, and at the end of the day, that is going to trump. Do we like or enjoy or relish the fact we had to tell some people what to do? No. No one likes being told what to do. No one likes telling people what to do. But at the end of the day, my advice would be it's an opportunity to lean in and view the positive. With COVID more generally, it's been an opportunity to adapt and pivot and transform at a speed or pace that may not have otherwise been available.

Q: Any other thoughts you'd like to share in closing? 

JR: Geisinger is an organization that's always been known for innovation in care models. In many ways, COVID — and how that's reinvented or forced us to rethink the care models and position us to think about which of those changes can carry us forward into the future — has gone hand in hand with what Geisinger has always been known for, and that's rethinking how we advance the health of those we serve. No one likes the pandemic, but that has been one bright spot. Maybe it's partly because back in 1915 when our organization got started, we got started as a result of a typhoid outbreak. In a weird way, it feels like we may have come full circle. The same dynamics were in place back then. There were local ordinances about congregating, enforcing masking, and here we are 106 years later dealing with the same issues. I do think there's a bright spot to this that we as an industry need to take advantage of because if we only focused on the negative, then I think we miss out on an opportunity to make things better. 


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