St. Bernards CEO reflects on lessons learned during COVID-19 pandemic

by Roby Brock ([email protected]) 891 views 

St. Bernards CEO Chris Barber has weathered plenty of disasters. The economic downturn of 2008-09 and the Jonesboro tornado both come to mind. Nothing could have prepared Barber for the hardships of the last year.

As leader of the largest healthcare system in the region, Barber sat down for a one-on-one with Talk Business & Politics Editor-in-Chief Roby Brock.

TB&P: What do you think are some of the lessons that you’ve learned in this last year?

Chris Barber: Obviously, we’ve had many over the past 12 months. I think, first and foremost, just the resiliency of our people, certainly in the healthcare profession, the folks who have been on the front line throughout this pandemic. We saw a lot of true collaboration among providers and communities to really tackle the issues associated with the pandemic. Now, the challenge really was our ability early on to source supplies, PPE, testing, and that really was challenging in different phases throughout the pandemic.

One aspect with not having adequate testing supplies, as you know, we were void with any type of rapid testing. That proved problematic without the ability to have early diagnoses and appropriate quarantine of individuals. So the testing is getting more convenient for folks and we’re on the right track to help that in the future. Health care organizations, early on in the pandemic, we were facing this new aspect of providing clinical care with the unknown of this novel virus, and at the same time, dealing with significant financial challenges as you’re well aware in the March-April-May time period at the same time. We’ve seen that really highlight some of the challenge with social determinants of care in the state as well as the country.

We do a lot of planning and contingency planning that was essential, but also the agility and being able to pivot and move quickly on the issues. We’ve all learned how to conduct business in a different form or fashion, not having to travel, not having to be in the same space, but being able to use technology to get things done. We’ve seen really the tremendous value in science as it has created incredible vaccines and efficacy, in addition to a lot of new therapeutics and some antivirals that are now going to be hitting the market for COVID-19 similar to Tamiflu and how it reduces the early onset of symptoms.

TB&P: How has the delivery of medicine changed during the pandemic and what may stay?

Barber: The whole aspect of telemedicine and its value was invaluable in the pandemic, and that’s going to continue to build out. I think you’ll see some different mindset of facility design and layout. Folks aren’t waiting in a waiting room now and there will be reprogramming of existing space, both in clinics and hospitals.

You’re seeing utilization patterns that are changing. ER utilization in the state’s down 20-25%. So you don’t see folks going to the emergency room just for a typical primary care issue. They’re moving to urgent care or telemedicine.
Probably we’ll see some new reimbursement models for healthcare that folks will be considering, and it’s kind of accelerated the pace of some of those. And then I would say in all various businesses, the workplace will look a little bit different, when you have a higher percentage of your employee base working remotely.

TB&P: How do you think we’re going to be prepared for the next healthcare crisis?

Barber: Hopefully, we’ll take the lessons learned and the experiences that we had and never forget what we’ve just been through and build upon those activities. One is the preparation. It’d be nice to have some of these PPE suppliers so we’re not dependent on foreign markets for a lot of those activities. I know hospitals really use a lot of just-in-time inventory. Folks are thinking a little differently about that now. When it comes to PPE, also, we’re looking at it differently with resource allocation of some of our talent from that standpoint. I think folks are seeing this as an opportunity to really kind of re-imagine the future and in anticipation of other events, but more importantly, what can we do differently in healthcare to be innovative to engage the consumer differently.

A lot of folks have not stepped foot in a doctor’s clinic or a hospital in many months. How do we embrace digital technology? How do we use that media to move forward and make sure we’re getting appropriate care out to individuals in a different form or fashion? I think folks will spend a lot of time on their advanced planning. I think communities will do that together and the various scenario planning. And obviously you can’t anticipate every issue, but we’ve lived through a real-life pandemic that there are a lot of lessons learned that we can embrace and put down as kind of best practices, what worked well, what didn’t and be prepared when that comes in the near future, whenever that might be.

TB&P: Let’s talk about healthcare workforce. What do you think will be different once we get past the crisis?

Barber: I think you will see an uptick of folks applying to medical school, because individuals understand the purpose and the value at this point in time dealing with the pandemic. We’re hopeful that we’ll see that spark some interest in that if you want to do meaningful work in the lives of individuals and impact communities and states, this is a very rewarding process to be part of.

It has been a challenge on all of our healthcare workforce throughout the state, and many organizations have done a lot of things to create spaces for folks to decompress, talk about the issues that they were facing. We have various resources that have been available from the spiritual aspect, the emotional aspect, just to help walk folks through some of the traumatic experiences that individuals have lived through.

TB&P: Tell us about vaccines and the hope that they give?

Barber: Obviously, we’re seeing more vaccines come in the state and we’re thrilled about that. You’ve got hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, all trying to get the vaccines in arms within 72 hours or so. We’re seeing large vaccination clinics set up throughout the state, which has been beneficial. We want to continue to build that pipeline to get more shots in individual’s arms.

It’s been exciting to see all the different folks who are willing to volunteer and be part of that solution because it is transforming lives when you have individuals that have been holed up in their house, not able to see their loved ones or their family members. When they get that shot, that is an emotional experience, not only for the recipient, but also that caregiver that has provided that hope and that new future for someone as they move forward.