After 'weeks of pure hell,' healthcare leaders reflect on COVID-19 lessons learned: 5 takeaways

In March, New York City hospitals found themselves flooded with patients before anybody could fully grasp what was happening. Within roughly 10 days of confirming its first COVID-19 patient, Mount Sinai Medical Center South was treating more than 200, according to Richard Murphy, Mount Sinai South's president and CEO.

"That gives you a sense of how quickly this thing came upon us and how quickly we had to respond to the surge," he said.

Mr. Murphy, along with New York City-based Wyckoff Heights Medical Center President and CEO Ramone Rodriguez and Melville, N.Y.-based North American Partners in Anesthesia CEO John Di Capua, MD, reflected on the harrowing experience during a June 3 webinar. NAPA Executive Vice President and Chief Development Officer Peter Doerner moderated the webinar, which was sponsored by NAPA and hosted by Becker's Hospital Review.

Five key takeaways:

1. Protect your staff. Mount Sinai South's first COVID-19 patient wasn't admitted for the virus; he was admitted for a head contusion from falling. But his condition quickly deteriorated, and clinicians noticed unusual respiratory issues. Fourteen days later, the patient finally met CDC testing criteria and tested positive for the virus.

"What we found, at that point, is we had had 125 employees exposed to this individual who immediately needed to be quarantined and sent home for 14 days," Mr. Murphy said. "We were immediately in a situation where our resources were depleted."

2. Communicate actively. Mr. Murphy said Mount Sinai South's end-of-day briefings were "essential" to keeping staff on the same page, and Mr. Rodriguez called regular communication one of Wyckoff's most important challenges.

"We had to communicate and meet every day, make audibles at the line [and] make changes all the time," Mr. Rodriguez said.

For Dr. Di Capua and his team at NAPA, communicating efforts to secure sorely needed PPE has been essential.

"I can't under-stress how important it is to communicate broadly about what you're doing" to secure it, he said. "What [staff] really want to hear is that you're doing your very best for them."

3. Recognize the mental toll. In the thick of the crisis, Wyckoff was challenged with supporting employees who were working harder and longer hours than normal with high levels of anxiety, according to Mr. Rodriguez. The hospital redeployed staff from ambulatory settings that were temporarily closed and was able to lean on NAPA to lighten some of the load.

"[Dr. Di Capua's team] showed their muscle, and they showed their skills during this very difficult time. NAPA provides anesthesia coverage for us, and they provided a lot more during this process," he said.

Wyckoff employees are still reeling from the sudden rush of patients, hundreds of whom were lost. At Mount Sinai South, 400 staff members tested positive for COVID-19, and two died.

"The mental health aspect is extraordinary," Mr. Murphy said. "We've begun dialogue with employees on how to roll out support. … This was five, six weeks of pure hell."

4. Never stop recruiting. COVID-19 was stressful for everyone — from clinicians and administrative support staff, to plumbers and carpenters working in the hospital. People may decide to retire early as a result, leaving hospitals even shorter staffed than they were before, Dr. Di Capua said. He advised healthcare leaders to keep recruiting, and to make their hospital a destination of choice by fostering collaboration and involving staff in decision-making processes.

5. Leverage scaled entities. Healthcare's financial battles aren't over, and they will create challenges in staffing to meet patient needs, Dr. Di Capua said. He recommends partnering with a scaled entity that can shift providers from one region to other areas of need and source needed resources.

As one such scaled entity, NAPA is "ready and preparing in the event that [COVID-19] does" come back in more waves, according to Mr. Doerner. As for clinicians and leaders at Wyckoff and Mount Sinai South, he said they provide "a great example of digging through this and coming out of it stronger than we went in."

Click here to hear the webinar.

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