By David Blanchette
The one constant for the health care industry has been change during the ongoing COVID pandemic, and Springfield hospitals are striving to stay one step ahead of the microscopic menace and the unprecedented disruption it has wrought to one of the area’s biggest and most vital industries.
“We’ve had to change every day for the last six months,” said Charles Callahan, president of Memorial Health System Hospital Group and president and CEO of Memorial Medical Center, who applauded his employees’ flexibility and ingenuity in meeting those challenges.
Memorial has weathered the constantly changing predictions, mandates and perceptions that the pandemic has caused, starting with the March 10 establishment of its Incident Command Center to deal with the COVID health crisis. Memorial is now promoting its “Ready, Safe, Go” campaign to let people know that all health care providers are doing specialized cleaning and sanitation, and patients shouldn’t defer needed care because of COVID fears.
“I’m concerned that people are afraid to come to the hospital or to their doctor. We have 1,000 beds in the five hospitals in our system, and I have 25 COVID-positive patients,” Callahan said. “There is a lot of care we are providing that has nothing to do with COVID. Unfortunately, we are still seeing people putting off care for some serious issues because of COVID concerns.”
Callahan said that constantly changing COVID mandates have been a major problem for the health care industry and the people it serves. Early on, hospitals were forced to stop elective surgeries and clear as many critical care beds as possible for an expected surge in COVID patients. Memorial formed new triage areas, opened new units with negative air pressure, did a lot of work on personal protective equipment and developed new rules, such as screening people at the front door.
But that COVID patient surge never came, and because hospitals were largely empty as a result, there wasn’t enough activity to keep all of the staff on board, resulting in layoffs and furloughs. Callahan said at Memorial’s slowest time, inpatient services were down by 25% and surgery was down by 60%. With few surgeries, there was very little therapy and other related post-surgery services as a result, he said.
Then, things changed again on May 11 when Governor JB Pritzker allowed elective surgeries to resume, but only with a special COVID screening test, which remains in short supply, Callahan said.
“We are very busy with surgeries, and honestly, now we are a little bit short-staffed in some key areas because managing these COVID patients is more labor-intensive,” said Callahan, who noted that Memorial is actively recruiting nurses, radiology professionals and other positions which are in high demand.
Another recent change is that patients have become accustomed to telehealth services which require no doctor’s office or hospital visit, and Callahan feels that trend is here to stay.
Telehealth has also become a big part of the HSHS Medical Group experience, and its use jumped from .01% of patients to nearly 20% now, according to medical director Dr. James Bock.
“COVID-19 accelerated the pace of change. Consumers want convenience and value, both of which telehealth offers,” Bock said. “Patients who may not otherwise choose to use technology have now discovered what it’s like to receive high-quality care without the need to drive to the doctor’s office, find a place to park and sit in a crowded waiting room with other sick people.
“Patients are pleased with the convenience, and our clinicians have increased confidence about the level of care they are able to deliver,” Bock said.
HSHS Medical Group plans to continue to use and expand telehealth, and it has even worked for some heart patients, within certain limits.
“We have seen tremendous growth in our virtual visits. Many of our patients live in rural communities and having access to cardiology care from the comfort of their homes has been well-received,” said Prairie Heart Institute of Illinois executive vice president Kristin Doster. “Unfortunately, because cardiovascular care is complex, we are limited when performing virtual visits, and a large percentage of our patients are better served when we see them in person,” she said.
“If a patient is having chest pain that is worrisome for coronary artery disease, in-person testing such as a stress test or a cardiac catheterization is the only way to adequately assess their potential heart disease,” Doster said. “Prairie is above pre-COVID volumes. Much of that is due to the fact that cardiology is not elective. When people have heart attacks, their care cannot be delayed, unlike other medical issues.”
Allison Paul, chief nursing executive for HSHS Illinois, said she is proud of the way its employees have responded to the constantly shifting sands of the COVID pandemic.
“I have been pleased to see the creative and innovative ways that we have not only been providing care in the outpatient setting but also connecting families with their loved ones who are in the hospital,” said Paul. “I have also been happy with the collaboration that we’ve seen in the Springfield medical community. We have worked alongside our health care partners locally to keep the community informed and to provide consistent care in the safest way possible to our patients with and without COVID-19.”
David Blanchette is a freelance writer from Jacksonville and is also the co-owner of Studio 131 Photography in Springfield.