Atlantic Health System doubled, then tripled, the number of critical care beds available to care for our communities during the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis. All in just eight weeks.
“There is no guide book for that,” said Amy Perry, CEO of the Hospital Division and senior vice president, Integrated Care Delivery for Atlantic Health System, as she offered an inside perspective on keys to a successful response during a live “Community Conversation” on Facebook held on Tuesday, May 12.
Perry explained that the reason the organization was able to quickly find creative solutions to increase capacity to care for the rapid influx of patients lies in its team members and their versatility.
“It’s about years of this culture, of agility, innovation, caring, teamwork. You can't invent those skills in a crisis. They just are accentuated in a crisis.”
Caring for our communities amid the COVID-19 pandemic brought out the best in people, she said, moved by the agility and speed in which team members responded to make sure all patients had amazing care.
The atmosphere Perry witnessed inside the hospitals was far from the chaotic scenes on the news.
“It is calm. It is competent. It is confident care. That sense of calm is palpable,” she said. “It is the reason why we could respond really with such an amazing, sophisticated manner for our patients.”
This crisis has brought out the best in the community, too. Perry sees our hospitals as an anchor in their local communities, providing a sort of center for outreach. “The love and trust that we've extended to our communities has come back to us in an extraordinary way,” she said, pointing to an outpouring of gratitude from the community – thank you notes, yard signs, first responder parades, meal deliveries, monetary donations, and hundreds of homemade facemasks distributed to the medical centers, physician offices and ambulatory centers.
“Every single donation mattered. Every stitch you put into this mask mattered and it's just a tremendous coming together.”
What is the role of innovation?
“Our employees are engaged and they're solving problems every day, before COVID, during COVID and now after (the first phase of) COVID,” Perry said.
When the team established new critical care spaces to care for COVID patients safely, and in accordance with stringent guidelines, they found new ways to create negative air pressure rooms and installed air handlers with special filters. They added 300 windows to doors so nurses could see patients, ran IV cords through specially made holes in the wall and procured new equipment to provide care.
How have you helped patients connect with loved ones?
One of the biggest challenges was the inability of families to be with their family members. Hundreds of iPads were deployed throughout the organization so patients and their families could connect visually, “Our team members really became family for those patients,” Perry said.
She described one case of an older gentleman who came in extremely sick. The resident who was caring for him was not willing to let him die alone. The resident sat with him for two hours, held his hand and, along with the nursing team, and managed to contact 15 family members so they could say goodbye.
“To show that kind of compassion and love for our patients, I'm just so totally touched by it. And you can multiply that times thousands because there's thousands of those stories.”
What guidance do you have for people who need care?
“First of all, I would encourage them to reach out to their physician,” Perry said. Physicians are generally good at giving advice about whether a condition can be managed at home or if someone should pursue the next step of care. Telehealth capabilities are expanding rapidly. Atlantic Health System has gone from 50 telehealth visits a day to 3,500 a day.
What if I have symptoms of a stroke or feel I may need emergency care?
“If you have chest pains, if you have the symptoms of a stroke, if you feel like something’s not right, you need to go to the emergency room and seek care,” Perry stressed.
“We are safe at Atlantic Health. We were safe during (the peak of COVID), because there are certain things that we always, always do,” Perry said. “We have a checklist that we do hourly on our rooms, on our hallways, on our common spaces to make sure that our surfaces are clean, our air handlers are clean. We do air testing, surface testing. This isn't a one and done.”
“Not only do we want to protect our patients, we want to protect our team members. We want to protect each other,” she stated.
How are you providing a continuum of care for COVID-19 patients?
Providing a continuum of care means improving wellness and health for individuals in different environments, in different times and in different spaces.
It's not just about hospital care, Perry said, it’s about what happens before you get to the hospital and after you leave.
Prevention was our first line of defense when the surge started, then ramping up telehealth to care for people in their homes, she said. Providing reliable information has played a big role, particularly when helping to establish safety protocols at some very large nursing homes. Perry believes that preventive work and those communication channels already in place helped manage the flow of patients coming into the emergency rooms.
“On the other end, it was equally important that we transitioned people to the right level of care,” she said. For some, that meant finding a subacute center for continued care. Other patients were able complete recovery in the comfort and convenience of home, with observation and support through remote patient monitoring tools.
How important it is to be part of a health system during a pandemic?
“It’s always important,” she said, “but it’s more important than ever because we’re able to shift resources.” A system has the flexibility to direct supplies or team members to a certain area that’s having a hotspot or a surge. In addition, Atlantic Health System’s large central warehouse has an automated picking system to choose from a variety of suppliers, bulk buy in certain areas, and then stay one step ahead in supplies through the efforts of a materials management team working 24/7.
How optimistic are you about our ability to stay on top of COVID-19 moving forward?
“I feel very confident going into this next phase,” Perry said, calling it a recovery period, which will be followed by something she calls rebalance.
“We're going to be continually ready to handle whatever might occur in the fall and ongoing. I really feel like we have the plan and the team to get it done.”