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When Life Changes in a Moment

By Jef Williams

There is an old proverb, a curse really, that goes something like “May you live in interesting times.” We are currently managing a global health crisis that has impacted every one of our lives in ways we would never have imagined only months ago. Our hospitals are full, we lack some basic tools and equipment to deliver safe care, our personal lives have been disrupted by social distancing practices, for many of us our work has changed from office to home, or from regular to extended and weekend hours. Yet in the midst of this chaotic, and tragic, situation there are some lessons we’re learning that help us cope and may perhaps live long beyond the latest novel coronavirus.

Why We Do This

An oft used colloquialism heard in the halls and conference rooms in health care is “it’s all about patient care.” This is used as a way to rally consensus or recalibrate focus when dealing with all of the peripheral activities that support patient care and delivery. It is used to justify expenses related to new equipment, to reduce the impact of a negative return on investment (ROI) related to a technology or operations project, and even to motivate employees who may be feeling overworked or underappreciated. But this current series of events is bringing people back to this core mission in ways that are both self-sacrificial and heroic.

There are physicians, clinicians, technologists and clerical staff putting their own safety and, in many cases, the safety of their families at risk to meet the needs of the sick. There are support engineers and staff who are ensuring that equipment and ecosystems are running effectively and kept clean and sterile. What an opportunity we have to appreciate these people who have always understood there is a mission to support but may have never expected a time would come that so much would be required – and they persevere in ways that inspire us all. Their actions also remind us that there is often a reason that certain phrases get over-used like “patient care,” and that’s because it’s what matters most.

Thinking Adaptively

There are many long-standing policies and practices in health care. It’s widely known that change happens slowly in health care. The implementation of EHRs notwithstanding, most innovation and implementation of rapid change is often met with a level of resistance. There are human factors related to change and the discipline of organizational change that contribute to this, but there many other factors as well. In a time of crisis, we often must learn to adapt – and quickly – to meet the problem with what must be done to remediate that problem. We are seeing some very interesting changes being adopted during this time that may ultimately change some of the ways we provide care.

The value of telemedicine has risen exponentially as people look for ways to isolate and reduce transmission. While the tools for providing remote physician consulting have been available for years, the adoption curve has proven disappointing for many. Issues related to reimbursement, certification and even HIPAA seemed unsurmountable especially with smaller hospitals and groups. Now there are reduced barriers to adoption with widely used tools such as Skype and Zoom along with policies changing to allow doctors to practice across state lines (or allow for local state certification of the practice to suffice regardless of patient location). Imagine how this, if it persists, will improve our ability to meet patients in the way that best meets their needs.

But What About Me

Our lives have changed since early March 2020. We no longer have the ability to enjoy a night out at our favorite restaurant, bowling at our favorite alley and have a beer at our favorite local brewery. Kids activities, including school, have ceased indefinitely and we’re balancing education, exercise and entertainment while still managing full-time jobs – many of which are more demanding than ever before. Our household has shifted from planning events and trips to making book lists, TV series and online yoga. Perhaps there is a silver lining with this nearly dissociative shift in habits and routines – that it brings new perspectives and opportunities.

Finding new ways to achieve similar outcomes requires creativity. Most of our jobs can be defined by the 80/20 rule: 80% of what we do is the same and 20% is new or different. Most thrive in routine related to process, location and outcomes. Right now, most of us have at least two, if not all three, of these things disrupted. We are working in ways we hadn’t planned, but still have a job to get done. It’s easier for some than others, but to welcome creativity into our world can help us meet the demands in ways we hadn’t considered all while showing us what’s important and causes us to prioritize the things that matter most. It’s likely that a number of people who are now working from home may never go back to the office. Even the way we schedule personnel and utilize resources may be forever changed. And, while none of this in any way lessens the awful circumstances of the virus, maybe it can be considered a sliver of light.

We currently have no idea when this wave of tragedy will subside or when life as we knew it will return to normal. Perhaps this is a watershed moment, not unlike 9/11, where we will be adopting a new normal. Maybe we will be different after this. It’s possible some things we took for granted will go away, or old routines will be replaced by new activities or ways to do our job. While this isn’t the time to figure that out, we must be prepared for what is to come. Right now, the focus of everyone I work with in hospitals around North America are rightly focused on keeping systems running, staff supported and supplies stocked – all for the purpose of caring for patients. Please know, for those on the front lines, we are here to support you and consider you our modern-day heroes. As Samuel Johnson put it, “Great works are performed not by strength, but by perseverance.” May we all persevere.

Jef Williams, MBA, PMP, CIIP, is a managing partner at Paragon Consulting Partners.

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