Past Pandemics Lend Lessons Learned for Navigating COVID-19

May 4, 2020

Recommendations for administrators can ease the stress of providing care during the outbreak.

As cases of COVID-19 continue to spread both nationwide and globally, and as providers stretch themselves to maximum capacity and capability, it can be easy to get caught up in the frenzied pace of treating patients and identifying optimal patient care protocols, forgetting that you also need to pay attention to how you’re interacting with other providers and staff.

According to one industry expert, there are lessons to be learned from previous pandemics throughout history that can both engender trust and bolster staff morale. Following these models can be critical to successfully navigating COVID-19, as well as any future healthcare crises.

“Healthcare institutional administration must help develop policies that are proactive, flexible, and render their institution as self-sufficient as possible,” wrote Christos Georgiades, M.D., Ph.D., professor of radiology, oncology, and surgery at Johns Hopkins University, in an article published in the Journal of the American College of Radiology. “Importantly, administrators must, at time of health crisis, relegate themselves to a role supportive of front-line personnel.” 

From the outset, he said, you must remember three central lessons. Leaderships with extensive experience and the best of intentions can still fail. Times of crisis call for as much flexibility as possible, and whatever practices and protocols you choose must be evidence-based.

With those three pillars in mind, Georgiades offered up five practice recommendations for administrators and practice leaders.

1. Don’t centralize control. Although you might be responsible for determining protocols and decision-making, centralizing control can put administrators in the spotlight unnecessarily. Doing so can create the impression that you’re taking credit for patient care rendered, potentially alienateing your providers and staff who are working at the front lines.

2. Pare down some of your administration efforts. Make sure all your communications – emails and memos – offer only necessary information. Repeated messages or communications that come from multiple or conflicting sources can not only distract your providers and technologists, but it can lead them to ignore future messages and whittle away at their trust in your ability to lead effectively.

Be sure any new regulations are critical ones that are based on evidence. And, be cautious that you’re not creating a new protocol, unnecessarily, mandating something your providers will implement naturally. Too much micro-management can demoralize your staff and breed animosity, he said.

3. Don’t overpraise your providers and staff. This can be difficult because they’re working hard, often at personal risk, to provide the best care possible to patients who, in many cases, are critically ill. Instead of praise, though, Georgiades said, acknowledge the debt owed by your institution to the front-line personnel, assuring them their efforts will not be forgotten.

4. Maintain humility and humbleness, and do your best to maintain objectivity in all your messaging. Being overly optimistic or pessimistic can undermine the integrity of your messages, he said. In many cases, your front-line personnel have a firm grasp on the patient care situation, so anything other than straight-forward assessments could be interpreted as a lack of understanding.

Remember that alongside the stresses and pressures of providing care for COVID-19 patients, your providers and staff could be dealing with outside issues, as well. Now is the time to meet any unintentional transgressions with compassion, understanding, and comradery, Georgiades said. Implementing or holding to a “zero tolerance policy” could be a death knell for office or facility morale during the crisis. And, be sure to maintain pre-existing patient care priorities, professional respect, work ethic, friendships, and social cohesion. If you allow these office mores to slide, recovering them post-COVID-19 will be unlikely.

5. Maximize your support efforts. Do your best to give your front-line personnel the training, supplies, and resources they need to provide the highest level of patient care they can. They will work much better and trust your future leadership activites more if you demonstrate your support for their needs, he said.

Georgiades cautioned that you internalize these lessons from previous pandemic experiences, noting that COVID-19 has demonstrated, without question, that the world has global susceptibility to future pandemics. Ultimately, he added, be sure your efforts are designed and implemented with your providers and staff in mind.

“Make sure those policies are, indeed, thoughtful and aimed solely to support the work of front-personnel,” he said.