2020 added several new words and terms to our everyday use: “social distancing,” “new normal,” and — above all — ”unprecedented.” Never in living memory have we encountered a challenge such as the COVID-19 pandemic. And hopefully we never will again.
However, unprecedented challenges can lead to hard lessons that spur novel solutions. We can learn a great deal from 2020, but I think we can group many of these lessons into three categories: adaptability, support, and communication.
Adapting to the “New Normal”
Our way of life changed seemingly overnight. A microscopic enemy invaded, immediately and radically upending our day-to-day routines and shaking our sturdiest institutions to their core. Suddenly, our favorite neighborhood restaurants closed, stocks plummeted, meetings shifted from conference rooms to video conferencing. Transition is almost always hard, but especially so when under the threat of an invisible, unknown, lethal foe.
And yet, we adapted. We followed new safety guidelines, implemented new workflows, discovered new ways to connect. We applied our existing tools and resources to overcome new challenges. Telehealth is a perfect example. This convenient technology became a lifeline between patients and care teams while helping to maintain revenue so practices, amid a challenging financial forecast, could be there for their patients. At Privia Health, we grew from a few thousand virtual visits a year to more than 800,000 in 2020. We transitioned to remote training to bring as many providers on board as quickly, effectively, and safely as possible. Similarly, the industry pivoted rapidly, reimbursing virtual visits at parity and easing licensing requirements to increase access and reduce administrative burden.
Rethinking Robust Support
Adaptation and transition require robust support. We understood early on the immense pressure providers faced, and therefore ensured we included the clinical voice in our decision-making. Adding tools, such as telehealth, without regard for providers’ workflows and well-being can lead to less optimal outcomes and exacerbate burnout. As Joseph DeVeau, MD, has noted, physicians’ high standards and pursuit of excellence can, paradoxically, increase burnout and even decrease performance. To support providers and, by extension, their patients, we revamped our support model. From creating a “single source of truth” for rapidly changing coding guidelines to helping secure federal emergency loans, we continually explored new ways to help providers and patients.
Beyond organizational support, we acted as advocates for providers. Their firsthand experiences with the turmoil of the pandemic gave them tremendous insights into how we must change, yet they were often overwhelmed with patient care and unable to advocate for themselves. Physician advocacy is extremely demanding. Therefore, we partnered with like-minded organizations to advocate on providers’ behalf. I’ll forever remember the clang pots and pans resounding through the streets of New York City as citizens cheered on the bravery and heroism of healthcare workers. In addition to this much-deserved praise, we must make sure that we continually strive to elevate their voice and support them every step of the way.
As Harvard Business Review notes, “When the situation is uncertain, human instinct and basic management training can cause leaders — out of fear of taking the wrong steps and unnecessarily making people anxious — to delay action and to downplay the threat until the situation becomes clearer.” We had to consciously counteract a tendency known as the Ostrich Effect whereby, in the face of adversity, we “bury our heads in the sand,” hoping that by ignoring the problem, it’ll resolve itself. We learned this when responding to Hurricane Harvey years ago. You cannot wait for all the information to emerge before reacting — especially not when dealing with a pandemic’s exponential growth rate. Instead, act decisively using the best information available and change course as needed. And once you have a plan, you need to communicate it rapidly and effectively.
Transparent, clear communication is vital throughout this process, both when implementing new strategies as well as adjusting and refining these plans. We enhanced our comprehensive customer relationship management (CRM) tools, optimized our mobile app, created cross-functional committees, increased our communication frequency, and more. These efforts ensured alignment and also fostered collaboration and morale during these challenging times.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us many tough — yet valuable — lessons in adaptability, support, and communication. Our main priority is defeating this virus, but we can keep an optimistic eye to the future and begin to think about ways to apply these lessons to improve healthcare.