Health care leaders stress cooperation when region reopens

They want to share ideas, best practices and what’s been learned during pandemic.

The West Michigan Policy Forum recently hosted a webinar for area health care experts to share their best practices for slowly and safely reopening Michigan.

The discussion, moderated by Doug DeVos, co-chair of Amway’s board of directors, focused on the health care sector and the perspectives of health care leaders in West Michigan. This was the third in a series of WMPF discussions on how to “bring Michigan safely back to work.”

“It’s really important to share ideas, to share best practices, to share what we’re learning,” DeVos said. “We’re thrilled to have some hospital leaders with us to expand our learning on this particular situation. This is not a simple thing. It’s not something we’re necessarily used to, but we’re going to have to get used to it. This is something that’s going to be here for a while.”

When asked how health care leaders are dealing with non-COVID patients, Dr. Peter Hahn, president and CEO of Metro Health, said his hospital is gearing up and focusing on patients who have avoided care because of fear of contracting COVID, before a serious uptick in confirmed cases hits the region.

“We have yet to see a true surge … in West Michigan,” Hahn said. “The modeling tends to suggest we are going to see an uptick in a few weeks … it’s just a matter of how big that wave is.”

Hahn pointed to the HIV crisis in years prior to suggest hospitals in the future may operate with dedicated COVID wards, with other parts of the hospital being non-COVID wards.

Hahn added there soon will come a time when hospitals can do true elective cases like bariatric surgery, but patients will have to be tested for COVID prior to surgery.

“I think the flip side, too, with the COVID and non-COVID wards is … patients with respiratory symptoms are automatically taken to a different area,” Hahn said. “So, a lot of it is reality. A lot of it is perception for patients, so we have to do our best to address both.”

Dr. Hyung Kim, president of Mercy Health Saint Mary’s, said his organization has been taking care of non-COVID patients since the beginning of the crisis, and Mercy Health reported taking care of more non-COVID cases than COVID cases from the start.

“As we think about bringing things back … it’s important to understand who has the kind of time-sensitive needs that we don’t really need to wait on anymore, because we know the social distancing has really had a big impact, and we’re comfortable that we can handle the surge as it occurs,” Kim said.

Kim said the advantage of being in West Michigan is the volume of world-class health care located here, and he stressed that people who need care for non-COVID emergencies should seek out immediate care.

“All of us are ready to serve, that’s really the big message I would say,” Kim said.

As other business sectors come back online, it’s important to continue to put social distancing at the center of operations, Kim added. The success, so far, of practicing safe social distancing, including making some business interactions virtual, should not be taken for granted.

Virtual visits have been a huge part of health care operations, for example, and Kim suggested other businesses should consider the same for operations where it’s appropriate.

The severity of COVID cases across localities also should be taken into consideration when modifying operations, Kim said.

“For Mercy Health Saint Mary’s being a part of Trinity Health, a national system, there are these principles we believe around safety and quality of care that apply everywhere, but because COVID-19 incident rates are so varied across the county, and even within our state, the way we implement them really differs,” Kim said.

Kim also wanted to remind business leaders that opening Michigan back up is going to be an iterative approach, and they should continuously modify their operations as they gain more information about working during the pandemic. Mercy Health, for example, has implemented reduced entry points and restrictions on colleagues who are sick.

Tina Freese Decker, CEO of Spectrum Health, echoed Hahn and Kim, saying Spectrum has continued to care for non-COVID patients during the pandemic. Spectrum also has more non-COVID patients than patients who have tested positive.

Freese Decker said Spectrum has around 650 patients in West Michigan, and about 50 of them have tested positive.

“We do continue to screen people to make sure we understand what their symptoms are, and we are applying all of the principles Hyung and Peter mentioned to make sure we’re taking care of our patients in the most effective way.”

Preventive measures at Spectrum include hand hygiene, social distancing, employee screening, appropriate PPE depending on the patients being examined, and every patient and employee who comes into a facility is given a mask and asked to use hand sanitizer, Freese Decker said.

Freese Decker added Spectrum has screened 50,000 people and done 10,000 tests, less than 1,000 of which have come back positive, over the past six weeks.

“We have capacity to do more, we just need to get more of the equipment,” Freese Decker said. “As we do that, we’re not only testing the symptomatic, but then those with mild symptoms, and we’re also testing those who come in for surgery to understand how best we can care for them and protect our team members.”

Spectrum also has an eye on the potential for individuals who are delaying care, as Hahn and Kim both mentioned.

“It’s important that our community knows we are a safe place,” Freese Decker said. “We have stringent cleaning requirements. We understand the PPE that’s required to take care of people … when we call patients to schedule something, we recommend various ways to do so, but we also recommend that they actually do receive treatment.”

Spectrum has not seen a decline in cancer treatment since the pandemic, Freese Decker said. The group is currently focused on other diseases like strokes and heart attacks as far as ensuring patients are coming in for treatment.

To shine a light on the need for testing in West Michigan, Kim said, based on the testing that’s already been done, the state of Michigan is about 27% COVID-positive, while West Michigan is about 10% positive.

“For us as Mercy Health Saint Mary’s, we would like to take the next step and have the county and the health systems partner to test key populations within our broader community,” Kim said.

For example, Mercy Health and Kent County already have started to partner to test the homeless population within the Heartside neighborhood, Kim said. There are other populations Mercy Health thinks should be tested to understand the prevalence of the virus, like asymptomatic colleagues, first responders and minorities.

“The reason I think we need to do it together is it’s a sizeable number,” Kim said. “It’s just too large of a number for any one health system to do alone.”

Funding is another matter. Kim said it costs about $100 to do a single test, and reimbursement doesn’t really cover it, so Kim again proposed a broader community effort to identify funding for more testing.

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