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Staying one step ahead of COVID-19

Estimated read time: 6 minutes

by Matt Wildman

Published on 3/25/2021

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.  

“Managing population health in a pandemic is new for everyone. There’s a lot of trial and error. You must quickly establish trust and get the data out there in a usable format. Communicating and asking for help have been keys to our success.” - Jason Aronovitz, DO

Healthcare heroes like Steve Edwards at CoxHealth in Springfield, Missouri, and Jason Aronovitz, DO, of Einstein Healthcare Network in Philadelphia, have directed proactive, coordinated responses to COVID-19 in their respective communities. We can learn a lot from their creativity and leadership.

Protecting healthcare heroes and the community

As president and CEO of CoxHealth, Steve has sought out partnerships privately and with the community to protect his staff, gain efficiencies and better care for the patient population. Steve has worked tirelessly with local and state authorities to understand the data, follow the science and ensure the community learned the lessons from other countries and regions that went through the initial surges of COVID-19. His efforts have kept CoxHealth one step ahead of the latest trends in preparation and treatment.

When CoxHealth began to anticipate a surge of COVID-19 patients, Steve worked with key leaders to line up contractors and subcontractors, overseeing the build-out of a 51-bed ICU COVID-19 unit on the CoxHealth campus — a project that was completed in just two weeks.

Additionally, as some CoxHealth employees shifted to working from home, the organization’s IT team transformed facility space — with Steve’s support — to a virtual school program to support CoxHealth caregivers with school-age children. This program, designed for up to 300 students, helps parents stay focused on direct patient care while their children learn in a safe environment.

One of Steve’s most important efforts was the protection of his staff’s health, safety and well-being during the pandemic. “[Our healthcare workers] are the most precious commodity in this war right now…” he said in an April 10, 2020, video.

In early 2020, the Springfield area faced a significant shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) due to price gouging and supply chain disruption. In addition to encouraging his staff to get creative in manufacturing PPE face shields with laser cutting and 3-D printing, Steve reached out to another main healthcare provider in the region to ensure the two organizations worked together to resolve these and other issues for residents of the surrounding 23 counties.

While CoxHealth did furlough some employees early on, many were redeployed to other health system needs — and none were laid off. Even with considerable financial losses, CoxHealth extended annual pay increases to frontline workers.

Steve contributed $100,000 of his own money to a $2.7 million fund for CoxHealth employees who were forced to miss work due to COVID-19-related issues, and the organization also launched a $1 million Healthcare Heroes fund to help cover work-related expenses for staff members fighting the virus.

Using social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, Steve has worked to keep the community abreast on topics ranging from the number of infections in various Missouri municipalities to a rise in cases in Greene County. He updates his followers on the latest advances in testing and vaccinations, posts statistics about COVID-19’s impact on the elderly and minorities, and strongly advocates for people to wear masks and maintain social distancing.

In addition to conversing with the community on these important subjects, Steve thought it was important to publicly recognize the hard work of CoxHealth employees. He worked with a local billboard company to launch a #HEROESWORKHERE campaign that honored nurses, doctors and respiratory therapists with the slogan, “Our heroes wear masks.”

Predicting COVID-19 complications

What if healthcare providers could identify and engage with patients at risk for severe COVID-19 complications before they got sick? Einstein Healthcare Network did just that. 

Dr. Aronovitz, Einstein’s director of population health analytics, led and supported the implementation of an open-source model that predicts patients’ COVID-19 complication risks and enables providers to proactively engage with these individuals to help keep them as safe as possible.

Dr. Aronovitz helped the IT team get the model up and running in just two weeks. The model provided Einstein a list of patients — prioritized by level of risk — who were ready for outreach.

The model used Einstein’s patient data to assess factors such as age, recent hospital visits and any pre-existing diagnoses associated with COVID-19 complications. Using these factors, the system calculated a risk score, which Einstein’s care management teams used to target patients who were the most at risk.

“We have the infrastructure in place to manage care for high-risk patients in our accountable care organization (ACO),” Dr. Aronovitz said. “When COVID-19 came, we pivoted those resources to proactively engage vulnerable individuals with services.”

Einstein caregivers provided these patients with education on potential symptoms, along with prevention strategies and tips on what to do if they fell ill. To keep physical contact at a minimum, Einstein converted patient appointments to telephone visits or rescheduled to a later visit as needed. In addition, the phone appointments enabled Einstein staff to help patients secure food, medication and other necessities, and support patients’ mental health needs.

While some of these efforts had begun prior to the predictive model’s implementation, Dr. Aronovitz says this solution helped to focus the efforts of care providers, enabling them to reallocate their energy to expedite patient care.

“Managing population health in a pandemic is new for everyone,” Dr. Aronovitz said. “There’s a lot of trial and error. You must quickly establish trust and get the data out there in a usable format. Communicating and asking for help have been keys to our success.”

Dr. Aronovitz wants to continue refining these efforts and will explore more opportunities — beyond the COVID-19 crisis — to automate and provide better proactive outreach. While improving COVID-19 treatments and outcomes was the immediate goal, he believes there’s great potential to expand Einstein’s depth and quality of care throughout the Philadelphia community, turning the model into a tool that can provide a long-lasting impact.

“Patients appreciate us offering support during this crisis and educating them,” he said.

Einstein Health System and CoxHealth are both part of Cerner ITWorksSM, a strategic healthcare IT outsourcing alignment. To learn more about the power of our community, read our 2020 annual report.