Preparing for the Next Surge of COVID: 4 Ways to Fan Sparks of Innovation

After the unprecedented struggles COVID-19 presented in the spring, you might be viewing the pandemic as a set of fires you have to constantly fight. But Barbara Periard, M.D., one of the physician partners at Forest Hills Pediatric Associates in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is urging pediatricians to look at the pandemic as a series of sparks.

Dr. Periard considers COVID an opportunity to make things better by fanning the sparks of innovative ideas and being willing to constantly change. She recently shared four strategies for navigating challenges that may arise in the near future, especially as we prepare for the next surge of the virus.

Start Planning Now for Another Surge

Before the pandemic began in mid-March, Dr. Periard and her team already had a plan. In fact, one of the physicians had been following the data from China and prompted everyone to take coronavirus seriously. The team started meeting to discuss COVID-19 back in January and February.

The leadership was quick to act, too. As soon as the first two cases hit Michigan, Forest Hills Pediatrics shut down its walk-in clinic and restructured the flow of patients entering the building. They rerouted well visits through one entrance and area of the office, while directing sick patients to another. Because the team had planned ahead, the changes were not a shock, and everyone was on board right away.

This is a helpful mindset to have as we move through the summer months — when the virus is likely more dormant because of the natural life cycle of viruses. Plan for the next COVID surge now before it happens.

Cultivate an Environment That Expects and Accepts Change

Since its founding in 1989, Forest Hills Pediatric Associates has established itself as a practice that is not afraid to innovate. And with innovation comes the need for change — lots of it, frequently. Dr. Periard said one of the best ways to prepare for drastic times of change, like those during the pandemic, is to “keep change coming.”

“If the environment becomes stagnant, people are less apt to change. But if change becomes part of your environment, it becomes an exciting and innovative place to work,” she noted. “They might laugh and say, ‘What’s new today?’ But when they know it’s for the greater good and a more efficient job for them — something that will make their life better and easier — they’re going to embrace it.”

Dr. Periard offered two key ways to build a culture that welcomes change:

  • Listen to people. Some of the best ideas will come from your staff members who are in the trenches doing their jobs. Give them a chance to make suggestions.
  • Hire people with change management in mind. Look for employees who are not change-averse and want to be part of something innovative and awesome.

Re-Evaluate Staff Members’ Roles

In addition to hiring people who are excited about change and innovation, it’s important to evaluate your employees’ current roles and how to maximize their time and skills.

For example, when the pandemic started and for a couple of months afterward, Forest Hills Pediatrics used a clinical team member to serve as the parking lot triage person. It’s an important role; someone needs to verify that patients have done their COVID screening and had their temperature taken. But the parking lot triage person often ends up helping get children out of car seats, too.

Now, the practice has hired some high school students to work the parking lot, freeing up clinical employees to return to their clinical duties. It’s worth investigating whether this type of situation would be helpful for your practice. A practice concierge is someone who’s good at customer service but doesn’t necessarily need training in medicine.

Recognize Things Have Changed for Good

Dr. Periard likened COVID-19 to 9/11, after which the world changed. “You used to be able to walk all the way to the airport gate with a family member. You can’t do that anymore,” she recalled. “We know we have to take off our shoes and belts, but we do still travel. Life went on.”

As we move into the fall and winter months, it’s important to realize there are some things that the pandemic has probably changed forever. For instance, telehealth is not going away and will still have a role in medicine. In addition, changes to office entrances, check-in and check-out desks, and exam room areas may be permanent in order to keep sick and well visits completely separate.

Because we know the prominence of viruses is seasonal, consider implementing a system in your office where you let staff and employees know it’s a time of low, intermediate, or high risk. If it’s a high-risk environment, expect to put up sneeze guards and have a triage person in the parking lot. Dr. Periard emphasized that no matter the risk level, always do what’s best for patients. “If you continually keep the patients’ best interests in mind, you’re going to do the right thing,” she said.

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