Stronger, more resilient: Hospitals respond to pandemic with growth, change
Hospitals grow in knowledge, services after helping community battle COVID-19
When COVID-19 first emerged, few could have predicted its far reaching and devastating impact or how long the pandemic would last. 2020 and early 2021 tested everyone's resilience, patience and strength, but possibly few were tested more than health care workers and the hospitals in which they serve.
After a long, difficult period, local hospitals have emerged with not only greater knowledge of how to treat and manage COVID-19, but also how to continue improving care across all aspects of their systems.
Just over one year after the pandemic began, hospitals reflected on what they've learned and the resilience of their staffs and are looking ahead to the new and innovative ways they're serving the community.
Lessons learned during the pandemic
Treating COVID-19 looks very different today than it did a year ago. Hospitals have gained an immense amount of knowledge about the virus and how to care for those affected by it.
"We have learned how variable this virus can be -- not only in terms of exposure risk and contracting the virus and the severity of symptoms, but also the duration of symptoms," said Jean Lydon, Chief Nursing Officer at Elmhurst Hospital.
Patients are now treated by an interdisciplinary team of physicians, nurses and other health care professionals working closely together to address physical and emotional needs of patients and families.
"The treatment of COVID-19 positive patients continues to evolve. We have a consortium of physicians and other clinicians that meet regularly to review the latest science and treatment protocols," said Polly Davenport, senior vice president and regional operating officer, Amita Health, and president, Amita Health St. Alexius Medical Center Hoffman Estates. "We've learned what it takes to contain the spread of this illness, protecting our associates, physicians and other patients."
Advocate Aurora Health, which includes Advocate Condell Medical Center, Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital, Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital, Advocate Lutheran General Hospital and Advocate Sherman Hospital, acknowledged that health care providers now understand COVID-19 far better than they did in March 2020 and have scaled new clinical best practices to treat patients in the system's hospitals as a result. Advocate Aurora Health also found ways to deliver important care and support to noncritical patients suffering from both COVID-19 and other illnesses. The system rapidly expanded consumer-first offerings, including telemedicine, self-management tools and an AI-powered COVID symptom checker.
Northwest Community Healthcare (NCH) in Arlington Heights noted that treatment of COVID-19 changed frequently. They adapted quickly as understanding of the disease progressed and what was once a very frightening and labor-intensive situation has now become almost the norm with standardized protocols that are now part of NCH's daily routine.
As a result, length of stay for these patients has decreased along with the need for ventilator support and intensive care. Most importantly, the mortality has decreased significantly.
"We are in the process of transitioning from the care and treatment of COVID-19 to prevention as we roll out the largest vaccination effort in history," said Alan Loren, M.D., Ph.D., NCH Chief Medical Officer.
Operations have changed
As soon as the pandemic hit, it became clear that hospital operations across the country needed to change to meet the growing crisis. Hospital systems drew on all the knowledge available within their networks to share best practices and lessons learned more than they ever have before, with the result often being developing even more efficient ways to operate as a cohesive system overall.
"There's not an area of care or process that hasn't been touched. For all the challenges faced through this pandemic, we have learned to be nimbler as we've dealt with a great deal of ambiguity and uncertainty," said Davenport.
Staff at Edward-Elmhurst Health (EEH) adapted operations in response to COVID-19.
Employees were quickly dispatched to work remotely with little to no interruption in business processes and productivity, communication among hospital staff became more robust, and telehealth was employed almost immediately following the outbreak and has continued to expand exponentially since then. In another operations change, testing tents were pitched adjacent to Edward-Elmhurst Emergency Departments and drive-through testing in the parking lot of their Corporate Center in Warrenville.
"It was so successful and well received by patients that we opened a new health center in Downers Grove and are piloting drive-through services for procedures not related to COVID," said Mary Lou Mastro, System CEO, Edward-Elmhurst Health.
COVID-19 affected Advocate Aurora Health at every level of the organization. The system responded quickly by shifting use of clinical space to expand ICU capacity and used predictive analytics tools to respond to the operational challenges introduced by the virus to best predict and respond to patient surges.
Creating predictive models of COVID-19 test positivity, infection control and bed and ventilator utilization helped Advocate Aurora Health allocate critical supplies and staff across sites to accommodate surges. While the past year undoubtedly tested the system in unthinkable ways, their COVID-19 response has allowed them to grow into a more flexible operation that is positioned to provide best-in-class care well into the future.
Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital also recognized the need for individuals and teams to be flexible not only in the face of the pandemic, but in preparation for whatever else the future may bring. The hospital cross-trained staff for other roles or departments, which promoted engagement, professional development, collaboration, efficiency and versatility. Changes to workflow helped the hospital manage the pandemic and now allows the facility to care for even more patients.
"Our ability to flex to take additional patients has been greatly enhanced post-pandemic. The ability to flex both staff and beds has allowed us to safely care for additional patients when historically, we may have chosen to go on bypass," said Suzanne T. McCoy, DNP, RN, Flinn Family Chief Nursing Executive at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital.
Resilience and positive energy of staffs make all the difference
The second patient in the nation identified with COVID-19 was treated at Amita Health St. Alexius Medical Center, as was the nation's first confirmed person-to-person transmission of the illness. Even in the face of the unknown, nurses, physicians, respiratory care specialists, infection control practitioners, environmental services associates came together as a team to take on a seemingly endless challenge and never missed a step.
"When all this began, we had no idea we would still be in the midst of it more than a year later. But, due to the resilience and dedication of every associate and physician who cares for our patients, COVID-19 care and precautions have simply become part of our normal operations," said Davenport.
Mastro has worked in hospitals and health care for more than 45 years and has never witnessed anything like the Edward-Elmhurst Health team's remarkable response to the pandemic. She said team members demonstrated incredible creativity while identifying solutions for patient care, safety, and infection control. They learned new roles as well as how to pivot at a moment's notice to keep up with constantly evolving CDC and IDPH guidelines, and through it all, they always supported and cared for one another.
"Although our team's dedication came with personal sacrifice, there was never a doubt that they would pull together to do whatever necessary to provide skilled and compassionate care for our patients, families and the community," said Mastro. "They are heroes who will forever be remembered for their unselfish and dedicated commitment to others."
Northwestern Medicine has always prided itself on having great teamwork and a staff committed to caring for their community, and the pandemic took those elements to the next level. At Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital in Geneva, staff stepped out of traditional roles, work hours and their comfort zones to meet the challenges the pandemic presented, while keeping staff and patients safe. The relentless pace taught the hospital that they could make changes quickly and could utilize the creativity of staff members to navigate challenging situations.
"Allowing our staff to be part of solutions to situations we had never faced before was paramount to our success," said Gina Reid Tinio, Ph.D., MS, MPH, Flinn Family Chief Nurse Executive, Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital.
Now over a year into the pandemic, Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield knows the full strength of its team. Each team member's tireless efforts new relationships and collaborations between departments were fostered and are here to stay.
"Our team is committed to providing excellent care in our community and have demonstrated time and time again that they will rise to any challenge presented with a 'can do' attitude," said Kate Matousek, vice president of operations at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital.
The pandemic reminded leaders at hospitals that are part of Advocate Aurora Health just how resilient and dedicated the system's team members and physicians are. All team members came together in an environment full of uncertainty to provide exceptional patient care.
Dr. James Keller, chief medical officer at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, part of Advocate Aurora Health, was impressed by how team members and physicians went well beyond their duties to continue serving patients, despite not knowing the risk to themselves when the pandemic first hit.
The team at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington, part of Advocate Aurora Health, rallied around one another to not only provide care to patients, but ensure that colleagues had the support they needed to continue the fight against COVID-19. Patients needed team members' and nurses' strength and emotional and mental support more than ever, especially when visitor restrictions prevented friends and family from being physically present for loved ones.
"I'm proud of the many ways we pushed ourselves to find better ways to care for our patients -- from virtual visits to staying on the leading edge of COVID-19 treatments. The lessons and experiences of the last year will leave a lasting mark on our approach to health care, and on our hearts," said Mary Roesch, chief nursing officer at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital, part of Advocate Aurora Health.
Forging ahead and looking to the future
Although hospitals focused on COVID-19 in 2020 and 2021, they haven't stopped providing exceptional and compassionate care to patients suffering from other conditions. Even amid uncertain and stressful times, hospitals continue to innovate, expand services and find even more ways to connect with patients.
Edward-Elmhurst Health has launched several initiatives to support and educate the community about the pandemic, including a virtual six-week complimentary COVID-19 Loss Support Group for those 18 and older who lost a loved one during the pandemic and opening a new location at 2205 Butterfield Road in Downers Grove that provides COVID testing for patients and COVID vaccinations for EEH employees. This fall, EEH will open the Woodridge Health Center in Woodridge at Route 53 and 75th Street. Patients will have the opportunity to see primary care and specialist physicians at the new location. In addition, Woodridge Health Center will feature a walk-in clinic for weekend and after-hours care, behavioral health services, diagnostic radiology (X-rays, mammography, ultrasound and MRIs), lab services, physical therapy and a weight loss clinic.
Advocate Lutheran General Hospital also developed innovative ways to support the community throughout the pandemic, including distributing nearly 40,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine at the site's COVID-19 Vaccine Clinic and working to launch a post-COVID Clinic to support patients experiencing long-term or lingering health effects associated with the virus. In October, The Comprehensive Stroke Clinic opened at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital's Brain & Spine Institute (1700 Luther Lane, Suite 1170, Park Ridge) to provide patients with a multidisciplinary, comprehensive approach to stroke care. Additionally, the Center for Health and Integrative Medicine at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital, recently opened to support patients' wellness journeys using a holistic, evidence-based healing approach. The center offers specialized yoga classes, therapeutic massage, acupuncture and nutrition counseling, along with personalized coaching. In addition, a Health Management Resources (HMR) program launched last year to help patients lose weight and keep it off through a structured, medically supervised program that combines diet plans, health education and behavioral change.
NCH is also looking to the future with the May opening of the new Women's Center, located on the hospital campus in Arlington Heights. The Center will offer breast health services, including a complete offering of screening and diagnostic services, as well as a Pelvic Floor and Bladder Program that includes pelvic floor physical therapy, bladder treatments, biofeedback, urodynamics and minimally invasive surgical treatments, with more offerings planned for the future. Additionally, NCH's newest Outpatient Care Center is also scheduled to open this fall at 15 S. McHenry Road in Buffalo Grove.
"Our goal is to make expert care easily accessible to all. This center will house a number of primary care physicians as well as a selection of specialty services. By consolidating all these services in a single location, it serves as a health care hub for the entire community, and a direct extension of our hospital services already available on our Arlington Heights campus," said Loren.
Throughout the pandemic, Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital continued providing vital services in addition to its COVID-19 response. The hospital was able to continue removing brain tumors thanks to a new same-day brain surgery program, launched by neurosurgeon Dr. Osaama Khan. In addition, Northwestern Medicine expanded access to outpatient behavioral health services for adolescents and adults at 7 Blanchard Circle near Wheaton's Danada Square, bringing partial hospital outpatient programming to the same building that houses Northwestern Medicine Immediate Care and medical offices. No matter the need, the hospital wants the community to know that it's safe to return to medical settings.
"I would like people to know that it is safe to return to our hospital setting. We have seen many patients delay preventive tests and/or delay in seeking health care which has led to patients being sicker than what we usually see," said Angela Black, MSN, RN, vice president of operations, Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital.
Amita Health System is also happy to welcome patients and visitors back for their recommended testing and screenings. Throughout the system, exciting technology is being used, including true augmented reality for spine surgery at Amita Health Alexian Brothers Medical Center Elk Grove Village and the latest generation of robot-assisted technology for general surgery and gynecologic and urology procedures at both Amita Health Alexian Brothers and Amita Health St. Alexius Medical Center Hoffman Estates, among other technological advancements.
"In addition, we're happy to welcome Dr. Michael Rezak, neurologist, whose focus on movement disorders, such as Parkinson's disease, will allow us to begin deep brain stimulation treatment at Amita Health St. Alexius Medical Center this summer," said Davenport.