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CEO's Corner: What an Atlanta ER’s Experience with COVID-19 Can Teach Us

COVID-19 has swept across the globe, and on top of bringing illness , it has also brought change to every part of our lives and the healthcare landscape.

For this month's CEO's Corner, I reached out to Dr. Joe Funk, MD Emergency Physician and Chief of Staff at Northside Hospital  for his insights on COVID-19 as a front line healthcare worker.

Kim Evans: When did your team begin preparing for the COVID-19 pandemic and what were the major steps you took to prepare?

Dr. Joe Funk: With our eye on the events in China and the U.S. West Coast and knowing we are home to the busiest airport in the world, our hospital system began ordering increased supplies (PPE, single-use medical supplies) in late January.  We continued in February having informal discussions about first and second level steps that would be needed in the event COVID-19 reached us, as well as estimating timelines, depending on how fast it spread.  By early March, we had ordered a PCR analyzer for our main campus lab capable of testing for the nCoV-SARS virus.  We also took steps to formally increase the intensity of communication between physician leadership of various specialties (EM, ID, PCCM, Medicine, OB/GYN, and Surgery) to facilitate protocols, procedures, algorithms, resource needs, and flow, as well as to ensure the safety of our clinical teams.  We began simulations for crashing patients in advance.  The pandemic has also changed the discourse within our organization, prompting a significant increase in physician engagement in hospital operations.  Change is uncomfortable, but change that is necessitated by crisis leads to compelling dynamics as patients, clinical teams, administration, executives, and boards are thrown into an “all hands on deck” scenario.  I am very proud of our organization for their ability to come together the way we have done.

Kim Evans: Can you tell us what it’s like to work in an emergency room setting during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Dr. Joe Funk: Our Emergency Department and hospital system had the good fortune of several weeks advance notice and the good sense to listen to the warning signs.  We were able to utilize our media to call the public off ED use for other than true emergencies, and we are supported by our community and clinic physicians and specialists in this regard.  We had a chance to prepare our staff in terms of precautions, flow, and triage.  We made mistakes in our algorithms that we identified and corrected as we saw our first COVID-19 cases, before our volumes increased.  We had the chance to prepare our families for the increased risk we now face.  We were able to learn from others’ experiences around the world, through the media, shared text messages from other front-line providers, and the few published reports. Just this week we have seen our volume and severity of COVID-19 cases accelerate.  It is as if we flipped a switch, it’s game time, and we are in a different place than we were a few weeks ago.  We have stringent new rules to protect ourselves and our patients, reminding coworkers to cover up, cautioning patients and families for the risks they face.  In the uncertain weeks and months ahead, we know that communication will sink us or save us, so we have become better communicators.  We acknowledge everyone’s stress, and we acknowledge everyone’s contribution.  We are learning to acknowledge our own needs for self-care, too.

Kim Evans: How do you foresee this pandemic changing health care in the long run?

Dr. Joe Funk: Julius Caesar said, “May you live in interesting times.” He meant that as a curse, and these are certainly interesting times, but I see amazing opportunities arising from our shared experiences. This pandemic is forcing us to change.  From people taking responsibility for much of their own health, to the health care system saying “This is what we can do for you right now, and this is what we cannot do.” From changing reimbursement models for TeleHealth and AI, to families caring more deeply for one another, there are several very good changes happening.  As we confront these changes, we realize that while we are uncomfortable, we are also capable.  The changes occurring in the midst of the pandemic have created an inflection point in health care.  If we ask the right questions and embrace the right answers, we may find the shared decision-making, value in health care, and joy in medicine we have all been seeking for some time.

Kim Evans: We generally end with the same question in our CEO’s Corner interviews, but for this one we took a slightly different approach. Once we get through this pandemic, when you look back on how healthcare professionals handled the situation, what will you be most proud of?

Dr. Joe Funk: Most of our healthcare professionals have never been in battle.  We have not experienced this degree of personal risk and risk to our families, nor the need for such a dramatic adaptation of our approach to patient care and use of resources.  This is a psychologically challenging time for us all.  I can say that I am already proud of the sacrifices our clinical and support teams are making, the cohesiveness and camaraderie they are embracing, and the commitment they are demonstrating to providing the best care for every patient.  I believe we may find that the collective sacrifice of social distancing and isolation that is mandatory to bring this to an earlier end may be the very thing that brings us together.


To learn more about Dr. Joe Funk and his work transforming the U.S. healthcare system, follow him on  LinkedIn.

 Interested in learning more about how COVID-19 has demanded change in health care? Sign up for our upcoming webinar, "Empowering Patients During the Age of COVID-19" on April 8th.

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