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Q&A: How can health IT leaders prepare for a surge in COVID-19 patients?

Published on 4/8/2020

Estimated read time: 5 minutes 

While COVID-19 cases continue to rise sharply across the country, health care providers in Seattle have been responding to the pandemic for many weeks. Part of their response includes using information technology to quickly and accurately adapt to changes while maintaining the highest standard of patient care.

In this Q&A, we talk to Alec Williams, Cerner ITWorksSM director and client leader at UW Medical Center – Northwest, a 281-bed hospital in Seattle. He shares the lessons he’s learned so far while leading a health care IT team in one of the cities hit hardest by the pandemic.*

Q: Seattle was one of the first COVID-19 hotspots in the U.S. What’s it been like to be on the frontlines of care delivery for several weeks?  

AWe first started hearing about COVID-19 cases in Seattle about six weeks ago. At first, there weren’t a lot of people in the area focused on it because there were just a couple of cases, and the virus was basically still in China. But quickly, it became an avalanche, and COVID-19 started to be a topic of discussion in the national news — one case turned into two, then four and the word out of China kept getting worse. You could feel the angst as people started to talk about preparations. It was interesting to watch as the crescendo continued to build. 

QHow did your IT team respond to the rapid rise in cases? 

A: Our ITWorks team kept in close communication with the UW team that works on end-user devices. I started a work-from-home policy about a year ago and having that already in place proved invaluable in being able to react quickly and keep associates safe while continuing to provide our essential services.

When things started to really ramp up in the hospital, disaster planning went into place, and we decided to expand the work-from-home policy. As the avalanche of COVID-19 cases continued, we mandated that everybody works from home unless they absolutely have to go on-site. 

Now, one person goes on-site every day for data center rounding, equipment work and to act as the proxy for the people working from home. If they need something done, the person on-site does their hands-on work for them. Using this strategy, we’ve been able to keep physical interaction between associates, and the potential spread of the virus, at a minimum. 

“We went live with the additional [critical care] beds on March 31 — just 10 days from when we first got the ask.” ─ Alec Williams 

Q: What interventions have you helped UW set up to cope with the surge of COVID-19 patients? 

A: About three weeks ago when it really started to hit, the UW clinical leadership began requesting that we make changes to the system that would empower care team members to track the virus from a patient’s admission through their discharge. Our response team was able to quickly go in and make those changes in the system.

The clinical leaders also wanted to put additional critical care beds in their operating rooms to handle the surge of COVID-19 patients, but they were concerned about how long it would take, the cost and the availability of resources. Cerner allocated the people needed to get the extra beds set up at no cost to the hospital. We went live with the additional beds on March 31 — just 10 days from when we first got the ask. UW was extremely appreciative of how quickly we got things up and running so they could focus on delivering high-quality care to patients.

We also supported UW in meeting the state’s requirement for hospitals to supply additional information for tracking the COVID-19 cases in Washington. Just like we did for the surge beds, Cerner formed a quick team. We then got the specs from the state and completed the work at no charge to UW. We were already providing a syndromic surveillance submission to the state, so we were able to add some additional fields and change the interface to help the hospital meet the new requirements.

“We look at health care organizations as our partners, and we realize that if our partners aren’t successful, we’re not going to be successful.” ─ Alec Williams 

Q: What’s the secret to doing this work so quickly? 

A: I think a lot of it has to do with Cerner’s acknowledgment that this is a worldwide public health emergency, not something to profit from. We look at health care organizations as our partners, and we realize that if our partners aren’t successful, we’re not going to be successful. It’s all hands on deck. If you have people on your IT team who are working on projects that aren’t critical to this pandemic, it’s time to refocus their efforts on what needs to be done right now for your health system to get through this crisis. 

Q: What best practices can you share with other health care organizations that need to increase bed capacity and meet new reporting requirements amid this pandemic? 

A: Communication is key. It’s important to have the IT side collaborating with the people who are leading care delivery and operations throughout the entire planning and implementation process. Everyone needs to be aligned in conducting a site survey, determining the needs, identifying the impact that it might have from a system standpoint and figuring out the timeline.

It's been extremely beneficial that UW is a Cerner ITWorksite because it’s empowered the IT team in having closer ties to the strategic goals and initiatives of our end-users. It’s played a crucial part in us working quickly and efficiently to navigate the complexities of this pandemic.

Cerner ITWorks handles your day-to-day IT operations so you can focus on what you do best  taking care of patients. Learn more here 

Disclaimer: Williams comments in this interview are personal and do not reflect the opinions of UW Medical Center – Northwest.