The COVID-19 pandemic challenged hospitals in unexpected ways and exposed vulnerabilities in emergency preparedness planning. Across the country, the pandemic stressed supply chains for critical personal protective equipment and essential drugs and caused staffing shortages as hospitals responded to coronavirus surges.
According to Ken Maxik, MBA, MBB, FACHE, RPh, Vice President Operations Support, developing pandemic emergency preparedness plans hasn’t been a high priority for hospitals and health systems because the country hasn’t experienced an infectious disease of significant magnitude in many decades. “Disaster preparedness efforts have historically revolved around what is most likely to occur in the hospital’s geographic area, such as floods and hurricanes, so many didn’t have a pandemic response,” he says. “COVID-19 will change the way hospitals look at disaster planning in the future.”
Scientists and public health experts caution that the world will likely face future viral threats that have the potential to cause epidemics. With this reality in mind, hospitals should evaluate disaster plans to assess what worked and didn’t work during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are three areas to consider:
Many health systems operate just-in-time inventory models, which dictate that supplies be delivered essentially on a daily basis. The approach is popular because it keeps costs down and doesn’t require significant infrastructure to handle bulk distribution, but it leaves hospitals vulnerable to supply disruptions. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, many organizations faced immediate shortages of personal protective equipment, ventilators, essential medications and other supplies.
For many organizations, the pandemic provided a wake-up call to increase visibility into inventory levels and establish minimum stock levels. Developing strategies to increase supply chain resilience now can help prevent future supply shortages and efficiently mitigate any shortages that do occur during a crisis.
Of the many challenges spawned by COVID-19, the demands on staffing hit healthcare organizations hard. Organizations dealt with COVID-19 surges that disrupted staffing plans and stretched resources beyond even emergency levels. Many organizations faced workforce shortages as staff themselves fell ill.
In response, hospitals developed innovative staffing models, such as dividing departments into two cohorts. If one team was exposed to the virus, the other team was available to provide care. Hospitals also embraced remote work models to mitigate potential staffing shortages due to illness or quarantine. CompleteRx saw many of its hospital pharmacy teams provide pharmacy services remotely during the pandemic, including order entry, chart reviews, interpreting clinical data and performing therapeutic interventions.
Hospitals should now examine staffing models and practices adopted during the pandemic to determine how these models might be applied to other disaster situations. Evaluate whether any staff cross-training is needed so that team members can step into other roles in an emergency.
The ongoing crisis severely tested the resilience and well-being of clinicians and staff, increasing the risk of burnout and emotional exhaustion. As hospitals move into the recovery phase of the pandemic, leaders should continue to watch for signs of stress and burnout. Make mental health and psychosocial support services available to those who need them. Rebuilding after any crisis may require focused efforts to re-engage staff and clinicians in your mission.
Preparing for the future
The pandemic tested hospitals’ disaster preparedness plans. Now is the time to assess crucial areas to be better prepared for the next crisis. Further, any emergency preparedness plans must be reviewed regularly for relevance and periodic adjustments.
“Organizations should reevaluate their disaster plans and determine if the decisions made during COVID-19 can be applied to other disaster preparations,” notes Maxik. “Look at whether any learnings can be carried over to future health crises and disaster situations.”