US hospitals seeing different kind of COVID surge this time

https://apnews.com/article/coronavirus-pandemic-business-health-pandemics-49810a71d2ca21c4b56adb1d1092b6dd?fbclid=IwAR1KvwTCWhAHZwDlmzgzMiNL5xhBfOySbZwgzXs3IAXtWlHai_VRfni5eaQ

Registered nurse Rachel Chamberlin, of Cornish, N.H., right, steps out of an isolation room where where Fred Rutherford, of Claremont, N.H., left, recovers from COVID-19 at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, in Lebanon, N.H., Monday, Jan. 3, 2022. Hospitals like this medical center, the largest in New Hampshire, are overflowing with severely ill, unvaccinated COVID-19 patients from northern New England. If he returns home, Rutherford said, he promises to get vaccinated and tell others to do so, too. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Hospitals across the U.S. are feeling the wrath of the omicron variant and getting thrown into disarray that is different from earlier COVID-19 surges.

This time, they are dealing with serious staff shortages because so many health care workers are getting sick with the fast-spreading variant. People are showing up at emergency rooms in large numbers in hopes of getting tested for COVID-19, putting more strain on the system. And a surprising share of patients — two-thirds in some places — are testing positive while in the hospital for other reasons.

At the same time, hospitals say the patients aren’t as sick as those who came in during the last surge. Intensive care units aren’t as full, and ventilators aren’t needed as much as they were before.

The pressures are nevertheless prompting hospitals to scale back non-emergency surgeries and close wards, while National Guard troops have been sent in in several states to help at medical centers and testing sites.

Nearly two years into the pandemic, frustration and exhaustion are running high among health care workers.

“This is getting very tiring, and I’m being very polite in saying that,” said Dr. Robert Glasgow of University of Utah Health, which has hundreds of workers out sick or in isolation.

About 85,000 Americans are in the hospital with COVID-19, just short of the delta-surge peak of about 94,000 in early September, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The all-time high during the pandemic was about 125,000 in January of last year.

But the hospitalization numbers do not tell the whole story. Some cases in the official count involve COVID-19 infections that weren’t what put the patients in the hospital in the first place.

Dr. Fritz François, chief of hospital operations at NYU Langone Health in New York City, said about 65% of patients admitted to that system with COVID-19 recently were primarily hospitalized for something else and were incidentally found to have the virus.

At two large Seattle hospitals over the past two weeks, three-quarters of the 64 patients testing positive for the coronavirus were admitted with a primary diagnosis other than COVID-19.

Joanne Spetz, associate director of research at the Healthforce Center at the University of California, San Francisco, said the rising number of cases like that is both good and bad.

The lack of symptoms shows vaccines, boosters and natural immunity from prior infections are working, she said. The bad news is that the numbers mean the coronavirus is spreading rapidly, and some percentage of those people will wind up needing hospitalization.

This week, 36% of California hospitals reported critical staffing shortages. And 40% are expecting such shortages.

Some hospitals are reporting as much as one quarter of their staff out for virus-related reasons, said Kiyomi Burchill, the California Hospital Association’s vice president for policy and leader on pandemic matters.

In response, hospitals are turning to temporary staffing agencies or transferring patients out.

University of Utah Health plans to keep more than 50 beds open because it doesn’t have enough nurses. It is also rescheduling surgeries that aren’t urgent. In Florida, a hospital temporarily closed its maternity ward because of staff shortages.

In Alabama, where most of the population is unvaccinated, UAB Health in Birmingham put out an urgent request for people to go elsewhere for COVID-19 tests or minor symptoms and stay home for all but true emergencies. Treatment rooms were so crowded that some patients had to be evaluated in hallways and closets.

As of Monday, New York state had just over 10,000 people in the hospital with COVID-19, including 5,500 in New York City. That’s the most in either the city or state since the disastrous spring of 2020.

New York City hospital officials, though, reported that things haven’t become dire. Generally, the patients aren’t as sick as they were back then. Of the patients hospitalized in New York City, around 600 were in ICU beds.

“We’re not even halfway to what we were in April 2020,” said Dr. David Battinelli, the physician-in-chief for Northwell Health, New York state’s largest hospital system.

Similarly, in Washington state, the number of COVID-19-infected people on ventilators increased over the past two weeks, but the share of patients needing such equipment dropped.

In South Carolina, which is seeing unprecedented numbers of new cases and a sharp rise in hospitalizations, Gov. Henry McMaster took note of the seemingly less-serious variant and said: “There’s no need to panic. Be calm. Be happy.”

Amid the omicron-triggered surge in demand for COVID-19 testing across the U.S., New York City’s Fire Department is asking people not to call for ambulance just because they are having trouble finding a test.

In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine announced new or expanded testing sites in nine cities to steer test-seekers away from ERs. About 300 National Guard members are being sent to help out at those centers.

In Connecticut, many ER patients are in beds in hallways, and nurses are often working double shifts because of staffing shortages, said Sherri Dayton, a nurse at the Backus Plainfield Emergency Care Center. Many emergency rooms have hours-long waiting times, she said.

“We are drowning. We are exhausted,” Dayton said.

Doctors and nurses are complaining about burnout and a sense their neighbors are no longer treating the pandemic as a crisis, despite day after day of record COVID-19 cases.

“In the past, we didn’t have the vaccine, so it was us all hands together, all the support. But that support has kind of dwindled from the community, and people seem to be moving on without us,” said Rachel Chamberlin, a nurse at New Hampshire’s Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

Edward Merrens, chief clinical officer at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health, said more than 85% of the hospitalized COVID-19 patients were unvaccinated.

Several patients in the hospital’s COVID-19 ICU unit were on ventilators, a breathing tube down their throats. In one room, staff members made preparations for what they feared would be the final family visit for a dying patient.

One of the unvaccinated was Fred Rutherford, a 55-year-old from Claremont, New Hampshire. His son carried him out of the house when he became sick and took him to the hospital, where he needed a breathing tube for a while and feared he might die.

If he returns home, he said, he promises to get vaccinated and tell others to do so too.

“I probably thought I was immortal, that I was tough,” Rutherford said, speaking from his hospital bed behind a window, his voice weak and shaky.

But he added: “I will do anything I can to be the voice of people that don’t understand you’ve got to get vaccinated. You’ve got to get it done to protect each other.”

New campaign to thank health care workers

The American Hospital Association, the American Medical Association and the American Nurses Association teamed up to release a new “Forever Grateful” TV and digital ad campaign on Monday to thank health care workers.

Why it matters: The campaign comes in the face of record levels of reported health care worker burnout tied, in part, to the prolonged emergency response to COVID-19.

  • The AHA also released a new video thanking health care professionals working in America’s hospitals and health systems for their work.

Labor Shortage extends beyond Nursing, beyond Hospitals

https://mailchi.mp/60a059924012/the-weekly-gist-september-10-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

How Could You Be Affected by the Healthcare Labor Shortage? - Right Way  Medical

The typical media coverage of the healthcare workforce crisis often focuses on the acute shortage of hospital-based nurses. For instance, the hospital forced to close a unit as nurses, burned out after 18 months of extra shifts taking care of COVID patients, leave for lower-stress, more predictable jobs in outpatient facilities or doctors’ offices.

But we’re hearing about a reverse trend in recent conversations with health system leaders. Instead of outpatient settings benefiting from an influx of nursing talent, ambulatory leaders report that nurses are now leaving for hospital or travel nursing positions that offer higher salaries and large sign-on bonuses. That’s forcing non-hospital settings to reduce operating room and endoscopy capacity.

Nor are shortages just in the nursing workforce. One system executive lamented that they had to cancel several non-emergent cardiac surgeries, not due to nurse staffing challenges; rather, they were short on surgical technicians. “Surgical techs aren’t leaving because of COVID,” the executive shared, “they’re leaving because the labor market is so strong, and they can make the same money doing something entirely different.” 

For lower-wage workers in particular, the old value proposition of working for a health system, centered around good benefits, continuing education, and a long-term career path, isn’t providing the boost it used to. Workers are willing to trade those for improved work-life balance, predictability, and the perception of a “safer” workplace.

Stabilizing the healthcare workforce will ultimately require providers to rethink job design, the allocation of talent across settings of care, and the integration of technology in workflow. And it will require re-anchoring the work in the mission of serving the community.

But in the short term, many health systems will find themselves having to pay more to retain key workers, including but not limited to hospital nurses, to maintain patient access to care. 
 

Cartoon- Bearing the Burden of Anti Mask/Vax Freedom

Cleveland Clinic-owned hospital system pays $21M to settle False Claims allegations

Dive Brief:

  • A Cleveland Clinic-owned hospital system in Akron, Ohio, is paying the federal government $21.3 million to settle claims it illegally billed the Medicare program.
  • Akron General Health System allegedly overpaid physicians well above market value for referring physicians to the system, violating the Anti-Kickback Statute and Physician Self-Referral Law, and then billed Medicare for the improperly referred business, violating the False Claims Act, between August 2010 and March 2016.
  • Along with an AGHS whistleblower, the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, which acquired the system at the end of 2015, voluntarily disclosed to the federal government its concerns with the compensation arrangements, which were enacted by AGHS’ prior leadership, the Department of Justice said Friday.

Dive Insight:

The Anti-Kickback Statute forbids providers from paying for or otherwise soliciting other parties to get them to refer patients covered by federal programs like Medicare, while the Physician Self-Referral Law, otherwise known as the Stark Law, prohibits a hospital from billing for those services. Despite the laws and a bevy of other regulations resulting in a barrage of DOJ lawsuits and been a thorn in the side of providers for decades, fraud is still rampant in healthcare.

Of the more than $3 billion recovered by the government in 2019 from fraud and false claims, almost 90% involved the healthcare industry, according to DOJ data.

“Physicians must make referrals and other medical decisions based on what is best for patients, not to serve profit-boosting business arrangements,” HHS Office of Inspector General Special Agent in Charge Lamont Pugh said in a statement on the AGHS settlement.

Cleveland Clinic struck a deal with AGHS in 2014, agreeing to pay $100 million for minority ownership in the system. The agreement gave the clinic the option to fully acquire AGHS after a year, which it exercised as soon as that period expired in August 2015.

The settlement stems from a whistleblower suit brought by AGHS’s former Director of Internal Audit Beverly Brouse, who will receive a portion of the settlement, the DOJ said. The False Claims Act allows whistleblowers to share in the proceeds of a suit.

As fraud has increased in healthcare over the past decade — the DOJ reported 247 new matters for potential investigation in 2000, 427 in 2010 and 505 in 2019 — the federal government has renewed its efforts to crack down on illegal schemes. That’s resulted in the formation of groups like the Medicare Fraud Strike Force in 2007 and the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit in 2017, which has in turn resulted in the DOJ recovering huge sums in stings, settlements and guilty verdicts.

Some of the biggest settlements reach into the hundreds of millions, and involve billions in false claims.

In 2018, DOJ charged more than 600 people for falsely billing federal programs more than $2 billion; last year federal agencies charged almost 350 people for submitting more than $6 billion in false claims. That last case led to creation of a rapid response strike force to investigate fraud involving major providers in multiple geographies.

Other large settlements include Walgreens’ $270 million fine in 2019 to settle lawsuits accusing the pharmacy giant of improperly billing Medicare and Medicaid for drug reimbursements; hospital operator UHS’ $122 million settlement last summer finalizing a fraudulent billing case with the DOJ after being accused of fraudulently billing Medicare and Medicaid for services at its behavioral healthcare facilities; and West Virginia’s oldest hospital, nonprofit Wheeling Hospital, agreeing in September to pay $50 million to settle allegations it systematically violated the laws against physician kickbacks, improper referrals and false billing.

EHR vendor eClinicalWorks paid $155 million to settle False Claims Act allegations around misrepresentation of software capabilities in 2017, while Florida-based EHR vendor Greenway Health was hit with a $57.3 million fine in 2019 to to settle allegations the vendor caused users to submit false claims to the EHR Incentives Program.

The Burdens Grow Heavier for COVID-19 Health Care Providers

Dr. Christine Choi, a second year medical resident at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center
Dr. Christine Choi, 32, a medical resident at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, prepares to enter an isolation area for COVID-19 inpatients. Health care providers must face daily patient death and suffering.

Soon after the COVID-19 pandemic began last spring, Christine Choi, DO, a second-year medical resident at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, volunteered to enter COVID-19 patient rooms. Since then, she has worked countless nights in the intensive care unit in full protective gear, often tasked with giving the sickest patients and their families the grim choice between intubation or near-certain death.

Essential Coverage

I’m offering this guy two terrible options, and that’s how I feel about work: I can’t fix this for you and it sucks, and I’m sorry that the choices I’m giving you are both terrible,” Choi told the Los Angeles Times’ Soumya Karlamangla about one patient encounter.

While Choi exhibits an “almost startlingly positive attitude” in her work, it’s no match for the psychological burdens placed on her shoulders by the global pandemic, Karlamangla wrote. When an older female COVID-19 patient died in the hospital recently, her husband — in the same hospital with the same diagnosis — soon began struggling to breathe. Sensing that he had little time left, Choi held a mobile phone at his bedside so that each of his children could come on screen to tell him they loved him. “I was just bawling in my [personal protective equipment],” Choi said. “The sound of the family members crying — I probably will never forget that,” she said.

It was not the first time the young doctor helped family members say goodbye to a loved one, and it would not be the last. Health care providers like Choi have had to work through unimaginable tragedies and unprecedented circumstances because of COVID-19, with little time to dedicate to their own mental health or well-being.

It has been nearly a year since the US reported what was believed at the time to be its first coronavirus death in Washington State. Since then, the pandemic death toll has mushroomed to nearly 500,000 nationwide, including 49,000 Californians. These numbers are shocking, and yet they do not capture the immeasurable emotional weight that falls on the health care providers with the most intimate view of COVID-19’s deadly progression. “The horror of the pandemic has unfolded largely outside public view and inside hospitals, piling a disproportionate share of the trauma on the people whose work takes them inside their walls,” Karlamangla wrote.

Experts are deeply concerned about the psychological and physical burdens that providers must bear, and the fact that there is still no end in sight. “At least with a natural disaster, it happens, people get scattered all over the place, property gets damaged or flooded, but then we begin to rebuild,” Lawrence Palinkas, PhD, MA, a medical anthropologist at USC, told Karlamangla. “We’re not there yet, and we don’t know when that will actually occur.”

Burned Out and Exhausted

A new CHCF survey of 1,202 California doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and behavioral health specialists confirms that levels of burnout and exhaustion are rising as the pandemic wears on. The survey, conducted January 4 to 14, 2021, is the second in a three-part series assessing COVID-19-related effects on health care providers.

Sixty-eight percent of providers said they feel emotionally drained from their work, 59% feel burned out, 57% feel overworked, and 50% feel frustrated. The poll asked providers who say they feel burned out what contributes most to that viewpoint. One doctor from the Central Valley wrote:

“Short staffed due to people out with COVID. I’m seeing three times as many patients, with no time to chart or catch up. Little appreciation or contact from my bosses. I have never had an N95 [mask]. The emotional toll this pandemic is taking. Being sick myself and spreading it to my wife and young kids. Still not fully recovered but needing to be at work due to physician shortages. Lack of professional growth, and a sense of lack of appreciation at work and feeling overworked. The sadness of the COVID-related deaths and the stories that go along with the disease. That’s a lot of stuff to unpack.”

Safety-net providers and health care workers with larger populations of patients of color are more likely to experience emotional hardships at work. As we know well by now, COVID-19 exacerbates the health disparities that have long burdened people of color and disproportionately harms communities with fewer health care and economic resources.

Women Bear the Brunt

The pandemic has been especially challenging for female health providers, who compose 77% of health care workers with direct patient contact. “The pandemic exacerbated gender inequities in formal and informal work, and in the distribution of home responsibilities, and increased the risk of unemployment and domestic violence,” an international group of experts wrote in the Lancet. “While trying to fulfill their professional responsibilities, women had to meet their families’ needs, including childcare, home schooling, care for older people, and home care.”

For one female doctor from the Bay Area who responded to the CHCF survey, the extra burdens of the pandemic have been unrelenting: “Having to work more, lack of safe, affordable, available childcare while I’m working. As a single mother, working 15 hours straight, then having to care for my daughter when I get home. Just exhausted with no days off. So many Zoom meetings all day long. Miss my family and friends.”

It is unclear how the pandemic will affect the health care workforce in the long term. For now, the damage “can be measured in part by a surge of early retirements and the desperation of community hospitals struggling to hire enough workers to keep their emergency rooms running,” Andrew Jacobs reported in the New York Times.

One of the early retirements Jacobs cited was Sheetal Khedkar Rao, MD, a 42-year-old internist in suburban Chicago. Last October, she decided to stop practicing medicine after “the emotional burden and moral injury became too much to bear,” she said. Two of the main factors driving her decision were a 30% pay cut to compensate for the decline in revenue from primary care visits and the need to spend more time at home after her two preteen children switched to remote learning.

“Everyone says doctors are heroes and they put us on a pedestal, but we also have kids and aging parents to worry about,” Rao said.

Working Through Unremitting Sickness and Death

In addition to the psychological burden, health care providers must cope with a harsh physical toll. People of color account for most COVID-19 cases and deaths among health care workers, according to a KFF issue brief. Some studies show that health care workers of color “are more likely to report reuse of or inadequate access to [personal protective equipment] and to work in clinical settings with greater exposure to patients with COVID-19.”

“Lost on the Frontline,” a collaboration of Kaiser Health News and the Guardian, has counted more than 3,400 deaths among US health care workers from COVID-19. Eighty-six percent of the workers who died were under age 60, and nurses accounted for roughly one-third of the deaths.

“Lost on the Frontline” provides the most comprehensive picture available of health care worker deaths, because the US still lacks a uniform system to collect COVID-19 morbidity and mortality data among health care workers. A year into the project, the federal government has decided to take action. Officials at the US Department of Health and Human Services cited the project when asking the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine for a rapid expert consultation to understand the causes of deaths among health care workers during the pandemic.

The National Academies’ report, published December 10, recommends the “adoption and use of a uniform national framework for collecting, recording, and reporting mortality and morbidity data” along with the development of national reporting standards for a core set of morbidity impacts, including mental well-being and psychological effects related to working through public health crises. Some health care experts said the data gathering could be modeled on the federal government’s World Trade Center Health Program, which provides no-cost medical monitoring and treatment for workers who responded to the 9/11 terrorist attacks 20 years ago.

“We have a great obligation to people who put their lives on the line for the nation,” Victor J. Dzau, MD, president of the National Academy of Medicine, told Jacobs.

Early evidence on disparities in vaccine acceptance

https://mailchi.mp/128c649c0cb4/the-weekly-gist-january-22-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

Distributing a COVID-19 Vaccine Across the U.S. – A Look at Key Issues –  Issue Brief – 9563 | KFF

Although only 17 states are currently reporting data on the racial and ethnic breakdown of vaccine recipients, the early data indicate that there are significant disparities in who is getting vaccinated, with the share of Black and Latino people among vaccinees lower than their share of the total population in those states.

Alarmingly, in our recent conversations with health system executives, those same disparities seem to be present among healthcare workers employed by hospitals and health systems. Anecdotally, across a half-dozen health systems we’ve spoken with in the past week, most report that they’ve had about 70 percent of their workers agree to get the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

However, that number looks significantly different when broken down by race and ethnicity: on average, the uptake rate among White, Asian, and Pacific Islander workers has been closer to 90-95 percent, while among Black and Latino workers, it’s been closer to 30-40 percent. Bear in mind these are employees of health systems—in many cases they’re frontline caregivers—and given their work environments you might expect them to be less hesitant to get the vaccine.

That 30-40 percent uptake rate is very worrisome, in two ways: caregivers outside of hospital settings, especially home care and nursing home workers, likely include a larger number of workers hesitant to get vaccinated. And in the general population, among whom health literacy is presumably much lower than among healthcare workers, it’s precisely those populations who are at highest risk of COVID infection, hospitalization, and death. (A further complication: health systems made it easy for their employees to get the shot. With vaccines for the general population still scarce, at-risk populations will inevitably have the most difficult time getting signed up, even if they want the vaccine.)

If health systems are the canary in the coal mine for vaccine hesitancy rateswe’re in for a tough challenge in getting the most vulnerable populations vaccinated in the months to come.

The No. 1 lesson from the 2021 JP Morgan Healthcare Conference: Healthcare is ‘too vital to fail’

Chronic Conditions | HENRY KOTULA

The annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference is one of the best ways to diagnose the financial condition of the healthcare industry. Every January, every key stakeholder — providers, payers, pharmaceutical companies, tech companies, medical device and supply companies as well as bankers, venture capital and private equity firms — comes together in one exam room, even when it is virtual, for their annual check-up. But as we all know, this January is unlike any other as this past year has been unlike any other year.

You would have to go back to the banking crisis of 2008 to find a similar moment from an economic perspective. At the time, we were asking, “Are banks too big to fail?” The concern behind the question was that if they did fail, the economic chaos that would follow would lead to a collapse with the consumer ultimately picking up the tab. The rest is history.

Healthcare is “Too Vital to Fail” 

2020 was historic in too many ways to count. But in a year when healthcare providers faced the worst financial crisis in the history of healthcare, the headline is that they are still standing. And what they proved is that in contrast to banks in 2008 that were seen by many as “too big to fail,” healthcare providers in 2020 proved that they were “too vital to fail.” 

One of the many unique things about the COVID-19 pandemic is we are simultaneously experiencing a health crisis, where healthcare providers are the front line in the battle, and an economic crisis, felt in a big way in healthcare given the unique role hospitals play as the largest employer in most communities. Hospitals and health systems have done the vast majority of testing, treating, monitoring, counseling, educating and vaccinating all while searching for PPE and ventilators, and conducting clinical trials. And that’s just the beginning of the list.

Stop and think about that for a minute. What would we have done without them? Thinking through that question will give you some appreciation for the critical, challenging and central role that healthcare providers have had to play over the past year.

Simply stated, healthcare providers are the heart of healthcare, both clinically (essentially 100 percent of the care) and financially (over 50 percent of the $4 trillion annual spend on U.S. healthcare). Over the last year they stepped up and they stepped in at the moment where we needed them the most. This was despite the fact that, like most businesses, they were experiencing calamitous losses with no assurances of any assistance. 

Healthcare is “Pandemic-Proof”

This was absolutely the worst-case scenario and the biggest test possible for our nation’s healthcare delivery system. Patient volume and therefore revenue dropped by over 50 percent when the panic of the pandemic was at its peak, driving over $60 billion in losses per month across hospitals and healthcare providers. At the same time, they were dramatically increasing their expenses with PPE, ventilators and additional staff. This was not heading in a good direction. While failure may not have been seen as an option, it was clearly a possibility. 

The CARES Act clearly provided a temporary lifeline, providing funding for our nation’s hospitals to weather the storm. While there are more challenging times ahead, it is now clear that most are going to make it to the other side. The system of care in our country is often criticized, but when faced with perhaps the most challenging moment in the history of healthcare, our nation’s hospitals and health systems stepped up heroically and performed miraculously. The work of our healthcare providers on the front line and those who supported them was and is one thing that we all should be exceptionally proud of and thankful for. In 2020, they proved that not only is our nation’s healthcare system too vital to fail, but also that it is “pandemic proof.” 

Listening to Front Line at the 2021 J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference 

There has never been a more important year to listen to the lessons from healthcare providers. They are and were the front line of our fight against COVID-19. If there was a class given about how to deal with a pandemic at an institutional level, this conference is where those lessons were being taught.  

This year at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, CEOs, and CFOs from many of the most prestigious and most well-respected health systems in the world presented including AdventHealth, Advocate Aurora Health, Ascension, Baylor Scott & White Health, CommonSpirit Health, Henry Ford Health System, Intermountain Healthcare, Jefferson Health, Mass General Brigham, Northwell Health, OhioHealth, Prisma Health, ProMedica Health System, Providence, Spectrum Health and SSM Health.

I’ve been in healthcare for 30 years and this is my fifth year of writing up the summary of the non-profit provider track of the conference for Becker’s Healthcare to help share the wisdom of the crowd of provider organizations that share their stories. Clearly, this year was different and not because the presentations were virtual, but because they were inspirational. 

What did we learn? The good news is that they have made many changes that have the potential to move healthcare in a much better direction and to get to a better place much faster. So, this year instead of providing you a nugget from each presentation, I am going to take a shot at summarizing what they collectively have in motion to stay vital after COVID.

10 Moves Healthcare Providers are Making to Stay Vital After-COVID

As a leader in healthcare, you will never have a bigger opportunity to drive change than right now. Smart leaders are framing this as essentially “before-COVID (BC)” and “after-COVID (AC)” and using this moment as their burning platform to drive change. Credit to the team at Providence for the acronym, but every CEO talked about this concept. As the saying goes, “never let a good crisis go to waste.” Well, we’ve certainly had a crisis, so here is a list of what the top health systems are doing to ensure that they don’t waste it and that they stay vital after-COVID:

1. Take Care of Your Team and They’ll Take Care of You: In a crisis, you can either come together as a team or fall apart. Clearly there has been a significant and stunning amount of pressure on healthcare providers. Many are fearing that mental health might be our nation’s next pandemic in the near future because they are seeing it right now with their own team. Perhaps one of their biggest lessons from this crisis has been the need to address the mental, physical and spiritual health of both team members as well as providers. They have put programs in place to help and have also built a tremendous amount of trust with their team by, in many cases, not laying off and/or furloughing employees. While they have made cuts in other areas such as benefits, this collective approach proved incredibly beneficial. And the last point here that relates to thinking differently about their team is that similar to other businesses, many health systems are making remote arrangements permanent for certain administrative roles and moving to a flexible approach regarding their team and their space in the future. 

2. Focus on Health Equity, Not Just Health Care: This was perhaps the most notable and encouraging change from presentations in past years at J.P. Morgan. I have been going to the conference for over a decade, and I’ve never heard someone mention this term or outline their efforts on “health equity” — this year, nearly everyone did. In the past, they have outlined many wonderful programs on “social determinants of health,” but this year they have seen the disproportionate impact of COVID on low-income communities bringing the ongoing issue of racial disparities in access to care and outcomes to light. As the bedrock of employment in their community, this provides an opportunity to not just provide health care, but also health equity, taking an active role to help make progress on issues like hunger, homelessness, and housing. Many are making significant investments in a number of these and other areas. 

3. Take the Lead in Public Health — the Message is the Medicine: One of the greatest failings of COVID, perhaps the greatest lesson learned, is the need for clear and consistent messaging from a public health perspective. That is a role that healthcare providers can and should play. In the pandemic, it represented the greatest opportunity to save lives as the essence of public health is communication — the message is the medicine. A number of health systems stepped into this opportunity to build trust and to build their brand, which are essentially one in the same. Some organizations have created a new role — a Chief Community Health Officer — which is a good way to capture the work that is in motion relative to social determinants of health as well as health equity. Many understand the opportunity here and will take the lead relative to vaccine distribution as clear messaging to build confidence is clearly needed.

4. Make the Home and Everywhere a Venue of Care: A number of presenters stated that “COVID didn’t change our strategy, it accelerated it.” For the most part, they were referring to virtual visits, which increased dramatically now representing around 10 percent of their visits vs. 1 percent before-COVID. One presenter said, “Digital has been tested and perfected during COVID,” but that is only considering the role we see digital playing in this moment. It is clear some organizations have a very narrow tactical lens while others are looking at the opportunity much more strategically. For many, they are looking at a “care anywhere and everywhere” strategy. From a full “hospital in the home” approach to remote monitoring devices, it is clear that your home will be seen as a venue of care and an access point moving forward. The pandemic of 2020 may have sparked a new era of “post-hospital healthcare” — stay tuned.

5. Bury Your Budget and Pivot to Planning: The budget process has been a source of incredible distrust, dissatisfaction and distraction for every health system for decades. The chaos and uncertainty of the pandemic forced every organization to bury their budget last year. With that said, many of the organizations that presented are now making a permanent shift away from a “budget-based culture” where the focus is on hitting a now irrelevant target set that was set six to nine months ago to a “performance-based culture” where the focus is on making progress every day, week, month and quarter. Given that the traditional annual operating budget process has been the core of how health systems have operated, this shift to a rolling forecast and a more dynamic planning process is likely the single most substantial and permanent change in how hospitals and health systems operate due to COVID. In other words, it is arguably a much bigger headline than what’s happened with virtual visits.

6. Get Your M&A Machine in Motion: It was clear from the presentations that activity around acquisitions is going to return, perhaps significantly. These organizations have strong balance sheets and while the strong have gotten stronger during COVID, the weak have in many cases gotten weaker. Many are going to be opportunistic to acquire hospitals, but at the same time they have concluded that they can’t just be a system of care delivery. They are also focused on acquiring and investing in other types of entities as well as forming more robust partnerships to create new revenue streams. Organizations that already had diversified revenue streams in place came through this pandemic the best. Most hospitals are overly reliant on the ED and surgical volume. Trying to drive that volume in a value-based world, with the end of site of service differentials and the inpatient only list, will be an even bigger challenge in the future as new niche players enter the market. As I wrote in the headline of my summary two years ago,It’s the platform, stupid.” There are better ways to create a financial path forward that involve leveraging their assets — their platform — in new and creative ways. 

7. Hey, You, Get into the Cloud: With apologies for wrapping a Rolling Stones song into a conference summary, one of the main things touted during presentations was “the cloud” and their ability to pull clinical, operational and financial dashboards together to monitor the impact of COVID on their organization and organize their actions. Focus over the last decade has been on the clinical (implementing EHRs), but it is now shifting to “digitizing operations” with a focus on finance and operations (planning, cost accounting, ERPs, etc.) as well as advanced analytics and data science capabilities to automate, gather insight, manage and predict. It is clear that the cloud has moved from a curiosity to a necessity for health systems, making this one of the biggest areas of investment for every health system over the next decade.

8. Make Price Transparency a Key Differentiator: One of the great lessons from Amazon (and others) is that you can make a lot of money when you make something easy to buy. While many health systems are skeptical of the value of the price transparency requirements, those that have a deep understanding of both their true cost of care and margins are using this as an opportunity to prove their value and accelerate their strategy to become consumer-centric. While there is certainly a level of risk, no business has ever been unsuccessful because they made their product easier to understand and access. Because healthcare is so opaque, there is an opening for healthcare providers to build trust, which is their main asset, and volume, which is their main source of revenue, by becoming stunningly easy to do business with. This may be tough sledding for some as this isn’t something healthcare providers are known for. To understand this, spend a few minutes on Tesla’s website vs. Ford’s. The concept of making something easy, or hard, to buy will become crystal clear as fast as a battery-driven car can go from zero to 60.

9. Make Care More Affordable: This represents the biggest challenge for hospitals and health systems as they ultimately need to be on the right side of this issue or the trust that they have will disappear and they will remain very vulnerable to outside players. All are investing in advanced cost accounting systems (time-driven costing, physician costing, supply, and drug costing) to truly understand their cost and use that as a basis to price more strategically in the market. Some are dropping prices for shoppable services and using loss leader strategies to build their brand. The incoming Secretary of Health and Human Services has a strong belief regarding the accountability of health systems to be consumer centric. The health systems that understand this are working to get ahead of this issue as it is likely one of their most significant threats (or opportunities) over the next decade. This means getting all care to the right site of care, evaluating every opportunity to improve, and getting serious about eliminating the need for expensive care through building healthy communities. If you’re worried about Wal-Mart or Amazon, this is your secret weapon to keep them on the sideline.

10. Scale = Survival: One of the big lessons here is that the strong got stronger, the weak got weaker. For the strong, many have been able to “snapback” in financial performance because they were resilient. They were able to designate COVID-only facilities, while keeping others running at a higher capacity. To be clear, while most health systems are going to get to the other side and are positioned better than ever, there are many others that will continue to struggle for years to come. According to our data at Strata, we see 25 percent operating at negative margins right now and another 50 percent just above breakeven. They key to survival moving forward, for those that don’t have a captive market, will be scale. If this pandemic proved one thing relative to the future of health systems it is this — scale equals survival. 

When Will We Return to Normal?

Based on what the projections that these health systems shared, the “new normal” for health systems for the first half of 2021 will be roughly 95 percent of prior year inpatient volume with a 20 percent year-over-year drop in ED volume and a drop of 10-15 percent in observation visits. So, the pain will continue, but given the adjustments that were already made in 2020, it looks like they will be able to manage through COVID effectively. While there will be a pickup in the second half of 2021, the safe bet is that a “return to normal” pre-COVID volumes likely won’t occur until 2022. And there are some who believe that some of the volume should have never been there to begin with and we might see a permanent shift downward in ED volume as well as in some other areas.

With that said, I’ll steal a quote from Bert Zimmerli, the CFO of Intermountain Healthcare, who said, “Normal wasn’t ever nearly good enough in healthcare.” In that spirit, the goal should be to not return to normal, but rather to use this moment as an opportunity to take the positive changes driven by COVID — from technology to processes to areas of focus to a sense of responsibility — and make them permanent.

Thanking Our “Healthcare Heroes”

We’ll never see another 2020 again, hopefully. With that said, one of the silver linings of the year is everything we learned in healthcare. The most important lesson was this — in healthcare there are literally heroes everywhere. To each of them, I just want to say “thank you” for being there for us when we needed you the most. We should all be writing love letters to those on the front line who risked their lives to save others. Our nation’s healthcare system has taken a lot of criticism through the years from those on the outside, often with a blind eye to how things work in practice vs. in concept. But this year we all got to see first-hand what’s happening inside of healthcare — the heroic work of our healthcare providers and those who support them. 

They faced the worst crisis in the history of healthcare. They responded heroically and were there for our families and friends.

They proved that healthcare is too vital to fail. They proved that healthcare is pandemic-proof.

Thank you to our healthcare heroes.

This terrible year taught me something about hope

The first month of the pandemic was also supposed to be the month I got pregnant, but my clinic closed and plans changed. Doctors and nurses needed personal protective equipment to tend to patients with covid-19, not women with recurrent miscarriages.

When the clinic reopened several months later, it turned out my husband and I had only been delaying yet another loss: In late August, he obeyed the medical center’s strict coronavirus protocols by waiting anxiously in the car while I trudged inside, masked and hand-sanitized, to receive a miscarriage diagnosis alone. I searched the ultrasound screen for the rhythmic beat of a heart, and then accepted that whatever had once been there was now gone.

But that was 2020 for you, consistent only in its utter crappiness. For every inspiring video of neighbors applauding a shift change at the hospital, another video of a bone-tired nurse begging viewers to believe covid was real, it wasn’t a hoax, wear a mask.

For every protest organized by activists who understood racism is also a long-term crisis, an appearance by the Proud Boys; for every GoFundMe successfully raising money for a beloved teacher’s hospital bills, a bitter acknowledgment that online panhandling is our country’s version of a safety net.

Millions of citizens stood in line for hours to vote for the next president and then endured weeks of legal petitions arguing that their votes should be negated. The basis for these legal actions were conspiracy theories too wild to be believed, except that millions of other citizens believed them.

And that was 2020 for you, too: accepting the increasingly obvious reality that the country was in peril, built on iffy foundations that now buckled under pressure. My loved ones who worked as waiters or bartenders or physical therapists were choosing between health and paychecks, and even from the lucky safety of my work-from-home job, each day began to feel like watching America itself arrive at a hospital in bad shape, praying that doctors or clergy could find something they were able to save.

Is there a heartbeat?

You want the answer to be yes, but even so, it was hard to imagine how we would come back from this.

What kind of delusional person would even try to get pregnant in this world? In my case it would never be a happy accident; it would always be a herculean effort. And so it seemed I should have some answers.

How do you explain to a future child: Sorry, we can’t fix climate change; we can’t even get people to agree that we should wear masks in grocery stores? How do you explain the frustration of seeing brokenness, and then the wearying choice of trying to fix it instead of abandoning it? How do you say, Love it anyway. You’re inheriting an absolute mess, but love it anyway?

I found myself asking a lot of things like this in 2020, but really they were all variations of the same question: What does it mean to have hope?

But in the middle of this, scientists worked quietly in labs all over the world. They applied the scientific method with extraordinary discipline and speed. A vaccine was developed. Tens of thousands of volunteers rolled up their sleeves and said, Try it out on me.

It was approved, and a nurse from Long Island was the first American televised receiving it. Her name was Sandra Lindsay, an immigrant from Jamaica who had come to the United States 30 years ago and who had spent the last year overseeing critical care teams in back-to-back shifts. She said she had agreed to go first to show communities of color, long abused, brushed-off or condescended to by the medical system, that the vaccine was safe.

Here was hope. And more than that, here was hope from a woman who had more reason than most to be embittered: an exhausted health-care worker who knew too well America’s hideous racial past and present, who nonetheless also knew there was only one way out of the tunnel. Here she was, rolling up her own sleeve, and there were the lines of hospital employees ready to go after her, and there were the truck drivers ferrying shipments of syringes.

I can’t have been the only person to watch the video of those early inoculations, feeling elated and tired, and to then burst into tears. I can’t have been the only person to realize that even as 2020 revealed brokenness, it also contained such astounding undercurrents of good.

The scientific method works whether you accept it or not. Doctors try to save you whether you respected public-health guidelines or not. Voter turnout was astronomical because individual citizens realized they were all, every one of them, necessary pieces in a puzzle, even if they couldn’t see what the final picture was supposed to look like.

The way to believe in America is to believe those things are passed down, too.

Sometime in October, a couple of months after my last miscarriage — when the country was riding up on eight months of lonely and stoic birthdays, graduations, deaths and weddings — I went into the bathroom and saw a faint second line on a First Response pregnancy test. It was far from my first rodeo, so I knew better than to get excited. I mentioned it to my husband with studied nonchalance, I told him that I’d test again in a few days but that we should assume the worst would happen.

Two weeks after that, I had a doctor’s appointment, and then another a week later, each time assuming the worst, but each time scheduling another appointment anyway, until eventually I was further along than I’d ever gotten before — by one day, then three days, then thirty.

I am not a superstitious person. I don’t believe that good things always come to those who deserve them. I believe that stories regularly have sad endings and that it’s often nobody’s fault when they do, and that we should tell more stories with sad endings so that people who experience them know that they’re not alone.

But 2020 has taught me that I am, for better or worse, someone who wants to hope for things. To believe in the people who developed vaccines. In the people who administered them. In Sandra Lindsay. In the people who delivered groceries, who sewed masks, who have long cursed America’s imperfect systems and long fought to change them, who still donate $10 to a sick teacher’s GoFundMe.

At my most recent appointment, the doctor’s office was backed up in a holiday logjam. I sat in the exam room for nearly three hours while my husband again waited anxiously in the car. I texted him sporadic updates and tried to put hope in a process that so far had not seemed to warrant my hope.

It all felt precarious. The current reality always feels precarious.

And yet there we all are together, searching for signs of life, hoping that whatever we emerge to can be better than what we had before, and that whatever we build will become our new legacy. The sonographer finally arrived and turned on the machine.

There was a heartbeat. There was a heartbeat.