Hospitals Show Resilience in the Midst of a Pandemic

Chicagoland health systems have taken big steps up in the wake of COVID-19, and they continue to evolve as the situation changes. Learn how they’re continuing to keep us safe.

The coronavirus pandemic is proving to be an endurance test for all of us. Emotionally, financially, spiritually, physically – we’re all affected in some way. 

But for health care workers, the responsibility of reacting appropriately to the virus is an enormous undertaking. How did our local hospitals initially respond to this novel disease, and how are they continuing to keep us safe?

Telehealth is the Future

Once the coronavirus reached the United States, and even before it officially arrived, Northwestern Medicine began planning and implementing new protocols with patient and staff safety in mind, says Dr. Irfan Hafiz, chief medical officer for the health system’s northwest region. Surgeries that weren’t time-sensitive were being rescheduled. Visitor restrictions were put into place. Employee screening became the new norm, and, where it made sense, employees began working from home.

“We would have, sometimes several times a day, calls across the whole health system, just to make sure that everybody was doing what they needed to be doing in concert,” Hafiz says. “We take it day by day as things change rapidly and different volumes of cases come through.”

One notable adjustment has been the increased use of telehealth. Before the pandemic hit, physicians were already embracing telehealth, or the use of digital communication technologies (i.e. phones and computers) to give patients remote access to health care services. But as the pandemic progresses indefinitely, telehealth is steadily becoming the new norm.

Just like an in-person visit, physicians can make a real-time diagnosis, develop or adjust a treatment plan and prescribe medications through telehealth. And, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, physicians are encouraged to provide telehealth options whenever possible for routine health care, such as wellness visits, medication consultations, nutrition counseling, mental health counseling, and even eye exams or dermatology consultations. 

Not only are telehealth appointments more convenient for patients, but in the midst of COVID-19, they’re oftentimes safer, Hafiz says. Northwestern Medicine is now offering adult and pediatric telehealth visits for many types of appointments, both in response to COVID-19 and in anticipation of its long-term impacts on our region’s health care community.

“Certainly, this experience [of the pandemic] is going to change the world in many ways. I mean, what does it mean to have large gatherings, summer festivals, waterparks, amusement parks – what does it mean to even go to a restaurant? I think we’re going to have to think through how we do all of these things, and it goes for health care as well,” Hafiz says. “We’re re-thinking how we can best continue your health care in the safest way possible.”

While telehealth grows in prominence, health care is meanwhile shifting online in other ways, especially when in-person appointments are necessary. For example, prior to appointments at Northwestern Medicine, patients are now being asked to create a MyChart account and use eCheck-In to review and update their registration information online instead of in person. Patients can also update their insurance information, pay any necessary co-pays and complete any required clinical questionnaires.

In addition, some Northwestern Medicine care centers have a Welcome Kiosk installed. For these locations, patients must scan a QR code that they receive through their MyChart account, which notifies their providers of their arrival. In addition, patients can opt to wait outside the facility and receive a text message when their provider is ready to see them. 

“Our staff has done a tremendous job in stepping up,” Hafiz says. “We continue to deliver the best care possible for our patients during this crisis, and we’ll continue to do so. We know that we’re not done with this yet. We know that we’re probably past the peak of this, at least in our region, but we know that COVID-19 is here to stay for a long time. We’re continuously assessing our readiness, so if we get rising cases again, or hot spots of the virus, we’ll be prepared for that.”

Hafiz encourages people to refer to reliable sources for information about coronavirus, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH). If you learn something on social media, it might be inaccurate, he adds.

“There is some great work and great information out there from reliable sources. It adapts based on what we learn about the disease, and based upon what stage of the epidemic we’re in; that is to be expected,” Hafiz says. “Certainly, the flattening of the curve with the stay-at-home order has had a tremendous impact. We have seen flattening of the number of cases coming through the health system. We’ve still seen pockets of hot spots from time to time, but certainly the stay-at-home order helped spread that out. We’ve not overwhelmed our capacity to treat our patients. And that’s been important.”

To schedule a telehealth appointment, call your local physician’s office or request an appointment online through your MyChart account.

How to Prepare for a Telehealth Appointment

When preparing for a telehealth appointment, here’s what you need to keep in mind:

• First, select a quiet, private, comfortable and well-lit place for the visit.
• If you have a video visit, plan to log in 15 minutes before your scheduled appointment to make sure the speakers and camera are working properly, and you have a good internet connection. For telephone visits, be by your phone 15 minutes before the appointment. The call may come from an unknown number.
• Just like any medical visit, you should:

  • Be prepared to discuss your symptoms
  • Know your medical history and recent test results
  • Have a list of current medications
  • Prepare any questions you have for your physician ahead of the visit

• Ask your physician to clarify anything you don’t understand or need repeated
• Consider having a family member or friend join you during the visit to take notes, raise any concerns and serve as a second set of ears.

Don’t Delay Your Medical Care

It’s always important to prioritize your health. Yet ironically, in the midst of a pandemic, it can be easy to put your health on the back-burner. 

“From a hospital perspective, it’s fairly obvious that people are delaying necessary treatment,” says Polly Davenport, senior vice president and chief regional officer of the northwest region and president of both AMITA Health St. Alexius Medical Center Hoffman Estates and AMITA Health Saint Joseph Hospital Elgin.

“I think people are fearful that they won’t be safe from the virus in the hospital,” she continues. “My hope is to reassure people that we are using the best known science to ensure that patients remain safe should they need to come in for another disease or treatment process. If you have a chronic illness, or if you have something that needs to be treated in the emergency department, it’s not a good idea to stay home and delay your care.”

By now, caring for both COVID-19 positive and non-positive patients isn’t as “novel” as it used to be. Back in January, AMITA Health St. Alexius cared for the first COVID-19 positive patient in Illinois and the second in the nation. Since then, the AMITA Health system has modified workflow processes on a daily basis in collaboration with the IDPH, CDC and local public health department to ensure best practices.

“You know, we are a faith-based Catholic ministry, and so our core values rose to a heightened level when we knew it was up to us to ensure the safety of those first few patients, as well as all others within our care, all while making sure our employees and associates were safe,” Davenport says.

“In the beginning, we were not yet familiar that this virus would be passed along from asymptomatic patients, so I’m very proud, with these first patients, that we were able to keep all of our associates safe and ensure that everyone was managing personal protective equipment effectively.”

As the months progressed, strict protocols became the new norm. Though restricting hospital visitors was a challenging strategy to embrace, Davenport knew it was the right thing to do, along with requiring everyone, including vendors, physicians and patients, to be temperature screened and wear a mask upon entering AMITA care locations. No exceptions. 

As the fight against COVID-19 continues, educating patients and the general public has been a challenge, Davenport says. There’s no need to live in fear and delay medical treatment, especially if delaying your care does more harm than good. But upon seeking treatment, it’s important to adhere to hospital guidelines that exist for your protection and the protection of others.

“Not everyone realizes that wearing a mask and social distancing do make a difference,” she says. “And, as people are coming back into elective procedures, they first need to be tested for COVID and self-isolate afterwards. That means you can’t go to the grocery store. You need to get your test done, go home, and stay there. The challenge is reassuring our patients and our associates that their safety is our top of mind, and we will do everything we can to ensure that.”

Despite the challenges COVID-19 has wrought, Davenport encourages people to embrace moments of joy. In the health care landscape, joy often takes form in support from community members, whether it’s a local restaurant donating meals to frontline workers or a child who makes a thank-you card. 

“We’ve had numerous, numerous people bring in things that have really brightened up the day for frontline workers, and that means a lot,” Davenport says. “We also actually have something we call Code Joy. When one of our patients has recovered from COVID and is discharged from the hospital, everyone in the hospital hears the sound of the Code Joy, so they know that the work they do matters.

“It is true that we have health care heroes. They do this every day, but this type of work is very demanding. I don’t think the community even realizes how much their support means.”

Managing Your Medical Conditions During a Pandemic

It’s one thing to understand that there are dangers in delaying necessary health care treatment. But how exactly can you be proactive in caring for yourself during this time?

In addition to standard healthy practices, such as exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet and getting enough sleep, here are some other health-conscious actions to keep in mind.

• Continue your medications, and do not change your treatment plan without talking to your health care provider.
• Continue to manage your disease the way your health care provider has told you.
• Have at least a 2-week supply of all prescription and non-prescription medications.
• Talk to your health care provider about whether your vaccinations are up-to-date.
• Call your health care provider:
– if you have any concerns about your medical conditions, or if you get sick.
– to find out about different ways you can connect with your health care provider for chronic disease management or other conditions.
• Do not delay getting emergency care for your health problems or any health condition that requires immediate attention.
– If you need emergency help, call 911.
– Emergency departments have infection prevention plans to protect you from getting COVID-19 if you need care for your medical condition.
• Continue to practice everyday prevention. Wash your hands often, avoid close contact, wear a cloth face covering, cover coughs and sneezes, and clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces often.

For children with underlying medical conditions:

• Identify potential alternative caregivers, if you or other regular caregivers become sick and are unable to care for your child.
• Try to have at least one month of medication and medical supplies on hand.
• Review any care plans for your child, such as an asthma action plan, and make sure caregivers and backup caregivers are familiar with these plans.
• If you do not have care plans or an emergency notebook, try to make them. They typically include important information about your child’s medical conditions and how to manage those conditions

*Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention