Photo by Jo Allen (@jovisuals)
COVID-19 is Demanding all Leaders to Do More
by Tom Mulrooney, FACHE – Vice President of Surgical and Cardiovascular Services/Chief Operating Officer for Iowa Lutheran Hospital and Methodist West Hospital
In March 2020, the COVID pandemic was just beginning to cause extensive damage to the health of our fellow citizens, our way of life, and our financial well-being. As a hospital administrator, my colleagues and I were faced with an endless number of difficult decisions, including needing to suspend several services. In reality, the decision was already made for us. We had a new disease that we understood very little about, did not have adequate testing supplies for timely detection of the disease, and challenges with personal protective equipment for our team members. We knew the impact suspending some services would not only have on our patients; we were keenly aware of the devastating financial impact it would have on our organization. All of that had to be balanced against our first responsibility as leaders to the safety of our team members, our patients and our community. I’m sure other business leaders can relate to having to make these impossibly difficult decisions.
My colleagues and I knew that keeping volumes down was only a short-term solution to give time to implement changes to create a safer environment for our team members and patients. As quickly as possible, we needed to use our collective expertise to address three main issues:
1. Increase COVID testing.
2. Ensure we had adequate and appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) for our team members.
3. Redesign our organization so we could eliminate potential risks of spreading COVID-19 for our team members and patients.
While everything we did was challenging, the third point might have been the hardest. Healthcare is a personal business and requires close contact with patients. We had to find new ways our team members could safely care for patients and we had to build trust with our patients that they would be cared for safely.
Implementing these changes required incredible trust in our entire team. As we identified problems that needed to be addressed, we would assign small teams to develop a solution with the expectation that a plan would be done within 24 hours. It took tremendous trust as our traditional way of doing business through large committees and layers of approval would not work. We had to trust the people assigned to solve the problem that they would deliver. Sometimes, it meant quickly accepting our solution had failed and moving to a new course of action. Even the solutions that worked often created unintended consequences that we then had to problem solve. By no means has our response been perfect. Even after nine months of COVID-19, this disease continues to present new challenges that need to be addressed. I could not be prouder of the collective effort of our team members who worked around the clock (and continue to do so) to meet the largest health crisis we have ever faced.
While hospitals perform different work than other businesses, the leadership required is no different. Numerous businesses continue to struggle as the situation with COVID-19 gets worse before it will get better. The public health solutions all businesses need to implement are clear:
· Social distancing
· Hand hygiene
There is no sense in reviewing what is already well documented to create a safe environment for both your employees and customers.
Retaining customers over the long term requires something else from leaders, that is trust. Your customers need to see you not only encouraging but complying with the COVID-19 prevention measures. If you don’t comply as a leader, how can you expect your employees to comply? If your employees don’t comply, how will you ensure you have an adequate workforce to meet the needs of your customers? If your company isn’t putting safety first, why would you expect your customers to feel safe returning to your business? It’s never been about mandates – it’s about leaders taking actions that ensure the health and well-being of our community while getting our businesses back on track.
Trust is not just built by your actions, but also the message your company is sending to the community. You won’t build trust if your company’s social media feed is filled with pictures of people not social distancing or masking. While some customers may not believe the public health measures are important, it will offend the customers you are trying to get back to your business. Customers and your employees will make judgements about your commitment to their safety. That impact will be felt long after COVID-19 disappears.
In writing this, I don’t profess to have all the answers. In fact, I have spent every day since March trying to get this right with my own team members and our patients. And at various points, I have fallen short in my own leadership. Every business leader has unique challenges to solve for in ensuring the safety and well-being of their employees and customers. Regardless of how difficult those challenges are, we all have a leadership imperative to put the safety of our employees and customers first. With safe and effective vaccines on the horizon, we must use our leadership positions to promote safety for all; this will be our best hope for ensuring both our health and economic livelihood.