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Creatively leading rural communities through COVID-19

Estimated read time: 6 minutes

by Matt Wildman

Published on 3/24/2021

Several hospital executives from client organizations across the U.S. have been recognized with the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME) Healthcare Heroes Award, which honors the outstanding service of those who have found new and better ways to deliver healthcare during the COVID-19 pandemic. In this blog series, Matt Wildman, senior vice president, client relationships, Cerner, explores the stories of these award winners and shares some of the insights they’ve gained during these challenging times.  

Creativity. We usually think of the word in the context of visual art or music, but the pandemic is showing us it’s also the hallmark of effective healthcare leadership. Two rural hospital executives, Rachelle Schultz, president and CEO of Winona Health in Winona, Minnesota, and Darinda J. Dick, president and CEO of Western Missouri Medical Center (WMMC) in Warrensburg, Missouri, are thinking outside of the box to keep their communities healthy and safe during crisis.

Taking a proactive approach to protecting seniors

When COVID-19 swept through Sauer Health Care in Winona last April, healthy residents needed to be quickly moved to another facility. Since many of the patients were already being treated by Winona Health providers, Rachelle led an effort to relocate them to an unused unit at Lake Winona Manor — a long-term care facility in Winona Health’s network.

“When we talk about our family, friends and neighbors in our Winona Health mission statement, we mean everybody,” Rachelle said. “Sauer residents and staff are part of our community, and we care about them as we do everyone else in our Winona service area.”

At Lake Winona Manor, patients could be monitored while in quarantine — an important step because one resident tested positive for COVID-19 after the move. At Rachelle’s direction, the Lake Winona Manor staff evaluated all unit entrance points, the air handling system and the personal protective equipment (PPE) with help from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Minnesota Department of Health. Rachelle also pushed for ongoing mandatory COVID-19 testing, which ensured there was no cross contamination to Winona Health’s staff.

Based on the success of this program, Rachelle began looking at other ways Winona Health could help similar senior care organizations in the area.

This broader initiative also included a strict testing program — one positive test meant an entire facility would be re-tested. The testing model reduced community spread by quickly identifying positives in high-risk situations and enabling rapid responses to limit exposure. 

Rachelle remains busy on the local and national level. In August, she shared her COVID-19 experience with the American Hospital Association through a leadership series hosted by board chair Melinda Estes, M.D.

“With extensive testing, I think we were able to prevent a lot of people from getting infected by the disease, and actually saving lives in that process,” she said. “We remain really ready for whatever might come our direction.”

Keeping medical staff, patients safe

Like Rachelle, Darinda has played a key role in her fight against COVID-19 at Western Missouri Medical Center (WMMC) in Warrensburg.

Darinda has focused on patient and employee safety — ensuring procedures and equipment are in place to protect medical staff members from infection.

When the crisis began, WMMC launched virtual visits to offer patients the care they needed while reducing the spread of the virus. In addition, Darinda and her leadership team met twice daily to evaluate PPE needs and develop mitigation measures such as extensive visitor/door and travel restrictions.

As PPE shortages continued, the organization assessed resources daily, set up new buying relationships and sought state assistance. When supplies ran low, Darinda organized a PPE drive and marketing effort, which included social media promotions and radio interviews. The drive was a huge success, with more than 55,000 items collected.

Darinda has also focused on her staff’s emotional well-being, initiating broader work-from-home strategies and ensuring that staff members have the resources needed to care for themselves and their families, including increased access to mental health counseling for employees.

Promoting community public health measures

In addition, Darinda and her team have focused on educating Johnson County, Missouri, residents about the virus. To help coordinate a regional response to the pandemic, her leadership team opened an incident command center at the hospital and worked with the country’s incident commander to quickly create an emergency operations center.

WMMC became a designated testing site and Darinda continues to play a key role on the Johnson County COVID-19 Taskforce. She was instrumental in county officials implementing a masking ordinance and education for businesses and county residents, and she supported programs like “TeamUp2CleanUp,” a challenge to sanitize high-touch surfaces twice a day.

As the crisis evolved, Darinda led a countywide reopening task force and WMMC offered best practices for reopening businesses. Throughout this period, Darinda appeared on local television (PBS), radio and virtual forums, reminding the community of the importance of continued mask use.

Advancing COVID-19 testing availability, speed

In March 2020, WMMC became the first facility in the region and second in the state to offer drive-thru evaluations and testing. The hospital set up a tent in one of its parking areas to accommodate traffic and allow patients needing testing to remain in their cars.

The organization worked with various labs to ensure patients received results as quickly as possible, assisting with quarantine compliance. Test results were available within three to four days, and for those testing positive, staff provided self-quarantine instructions. Later, the organization launched COVID-19 antibody testing, available on-site and at a drive-thru facility, and the hospital purchased an analyzer to run these tests on-site, reducing wait times.

Amid a turbulent public health crisis, Rachelle and Darinda’s entrepreneurial thinking has probably saved many lives in their respective communities. I’m honored to shine a bright light on their work; we can all learn from their example.

Winona Health and WMMC are both in a strategic health care IT outsourcing alignment called Cerner ITWorksSM. To learn more about the power of our community, please visit our 2020 annual report.