Though many states are reopening and businesses are trying to get back to a routine, the COVID-19 pandemic unfortunately, isn’t over. However, there is much we can learn from what we’ve been through so far to help us improve our approach during this pandemic and afterwards. In preparation for our recent webinar collaboration with Modern HealthcareCOVID-19 as a Catalyst: Rebuilding the House While Preparing for the Future—our SCP experts spent some time reflecting on lessons learned  from this crisis time.

Keep reading for five takeaways thus far from the COVID-19 pandemic about communication, mental health, teamwork, telehealth, and more. Each of the five lessons also includes additional resources you can use to take action moving forward.  

#1: Effective communication isn’t just important—it’s essential

Establishing a culture of consistent, clear, and compassionate communication is absolutely imperative—and it bears the most fruit on all fronts during a crisis.

  • Internal communication: Your workforce needs to feel supported, informed, and empowered to do their jobs. Work to strike the balance between overcommunication (overwhelming) and radio silence (disconcerting). You don’t have to have every single answer, and you also don’t have to share every detail. Create a reliable cadence and structure for your communications for each major stakeholder. You may need a plan for sharing different portions of information with clinical vs. nonclinical staff while ensuring that everyone is receiving the same baseline messages. Ask for feedback—not just after, but during—to ensure that the way you’re conveying important information is effective and clear.
  • Provider-to-patient communication: Improving communication with patients is not a new initiative—but it has become increasingly important due to three factors: (1) pandemic-associated anxiety and fear, (2) increases in virtual visits, and (3) visitor restrictions throughout the hospital. Connect with your clinicians and make sure they feel equipped for these complex situations. Do your best to schedule in such a way that each provider has a little extra time to sit with patients or help them Facetime their loved ones. Offer crash courses or take-home tip sheets on important skills like palliative care conversations, virtual visit best practices, etc. Do what you can in the moment and keep a list of what more you want to do once things normalize.
  • Community communication: Position your organization and providers as trusted experts in the community. Throughout the pandemic, ED and urgent care volumes dropped dangerously around the country since people who seriously needed care were not coming in. Additionally, pandemics are prime breeding ground for conspiracy theories and misinformation—and local healthcare providers and leaders can be extremely influential in untangling those narratives and sharing truth.

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#2: We need to dig deeper into our patient populations

One of the challenges that many hospitals and systems have faced during this pandemic is lack of insight into the makeup of the community and who is most at risk for health declines. Getting to know your community population better includes:

  • Building deep relationships with key groups and major employers: Prioritizing outreach will position you as a trustworthy partner to your community. By forming bonds with local groups (religious, social, interest, culture) and major local employers, your staff (clinical and non) will be able to more effectively engage with, and proactively care for, all people in your population. In pandemic times, these relationships will also get you a step closer to knowing who is most at risk—and how to help.
  • Improving data collection and analysis: Social determinants of health is a buzz-phrase, but it’s popular for a reason. The AHA found that 80% of health outcomes are attributable to someone’s physical environment, social determinants, and behavioral patterns. In a pandemic, those factors become even more important. Ensure that you are instilling habits that will help construct a robust database of useful information on your community members. This may mean building new questions into clinician intake forms, establishing different processes throughout the patient’s financial journey, or surveying your community members to gather feedback on how you can serve them better.

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#3: Virtual care is here to stay

Though a lot is still unknown regarding how reimbursement and regulation will work for telehealth services once the pandemic is truly over, one thing is certain: virtual care is here to stay. The way that it is implemented and relied upon will differ from system to system, state to state, etc., but the dramatic rise in its popularity and usage over just the past six months means that it can no longer be ignored as an alternative way of administering care.

A vital piece to recognize here is that telehealth is not one-size-fits-all. Consider which technology trends apply most to you and will be most impactful given your organization’s mission, local population, and current capabilities. Read up on as much as you can about telehealth in the industry. Reach out to colleagues who may have a unique view of your local market and needs. You might use remote providers to supplement hospitalists overnight or during surges. You might implement a comprehensive direct-to-consumer solution that allows patients to access care anytime, anywhere. You might repurpose ED provider time during lulls to help treat patients at one of your other sites of care. Or, you may set up telehealth booths in community centers to increase access and spread your brand.

It will look different for everyone, but the important part is that you know your community’s specific needs (see takeaway #2) and integrate telehealth as a piece of how you provide care.

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#4: Mental health must be a priority

While COVID-19 has had obvious physical effects on hundreds of thousands of people throughout the U.S. (and even more throughout the world), it’s also had a quieter but similarly as devastating impact on mental health. Loneliness and isolation, ICU delirium, fear, anxiety, depression, sadness and grief, domestic abuse, disordered eating, and trauma are just a few of the ways that people have been pained by this pandemic—and the healthcare industry at large can’t possibly ignore that.

For patients and communities, there are a few different ways to proactively and reactively care for their mental health.

  • Pair your creative and clinical teams to deploy online tools and resources for your local population, including hotlines, support groups, screenings, meditations, mobile app recommendations, and other interventions.
  • For patients within the hospital setting who are subject to stricter visitation rules, do your best to continuously provide them with a sense of support. Facilitate video calls with their loved ones, spend extra time getting to know them, and follow-up once they are discharged to ensure that they are recovering well (both physically and psychologically).
  • Ensure that as people start returning to get non-COVID-19-related care, providers and staff are especially attuned to any words or behaviors that might signify a recent decline in mental health or amplification of existing psychological challenges. 

For your providers and hospital staff, this has been an incredibly taxing time.

  • Require managers to regularly check in with their teams about their mental health and what they need to feel supported.
  • Provide mental health resources, including therapy, support groups, and quiet rooms, to your entire workforce.
  • Attempt to staff in such a way that your clinicians can take much-needed breaks.
  • Continuously convey your gratitude for the incredible effort that your workforce is putting forth.
  • Be cognizant of other stressful or difficult situations happening that would affect your workforce (e.g. Black Lives Matter movement, local developments, etc.) and be humble, compassionate, and encouraging in how you address and act on these situations.

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#5: Together, We Heal (even from this)

While COVID-19 has brought an immense amount of pain and suffering, it has also had a few notable positive effects.

It has brought people together over commonly-shared fears, needs, and goals—showcasing how incredibly the hospital/system-community relationship can work when they are caring for each other deeply. We see this in meal donations, in virtual outreach programs, in non-healthcare businesses turning their facilities into PPE-making machines, in clinicians shifting their lives to meet the immediate needs of other departments or cities, and more.

It has shown us how we need to change. These reflections are just a starting point for the incredible shift that could take place if healthcare organizations and networks decided to take this opportunity to change the way things are done and create a more effective care delivery system.

It has reminded us to stick to our core values—they are our guiding light in challenging circumstances. This pandemic will likely fade into history as they all do, but what will stay is the impact of how each organization navigates these rocky seas. At SCP Health, we adhere to four core values: agility, respect, collaboration, and courage. Instilling these values deep into our company gave us a roadmap for effectively supporting and standing with our partners, providers, and patients in both easy and difficult times.

We have been proud to see our clinicians courageously battle this disease; our employees respect the CDC guidelines and execute excellent work from home; our partner hospitals demonstrate agility in deploying innovative care solutions, and our communities collaborate to strengthen each other’s health and wellbeing. 

We hope that, when the pandemic has passed, your organization will also be satisfied with how you stayed true to your core values and did right by those around you.

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