Baltimore-area health care CEOs on lessons learned from COVID-19

Health Care panelists

On December 8, 2020, the Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC) hosted the GBC Newsmaker Speaker Series — COVID-19: Health Care Challenge. Catalyst. Disruptor. with panelists Kenneth A. Samet, President and Chief Executive Officer, MedStar Health; Kevin W. Sowers, President, Johns Hopkins Health; and Dr. Mohan Suntha, President and CEO, University of Maryland Medical System. Renee DeSilva, CEO, The Health Management Academy, moderated the discussion.

Topics covered during the discussion included:

  • How COVID-19 has impacted delivery of health care
  • What are the short and long term economic, social and technology implications of the pandemic
  • The acceleration of telemedicine
  • Adapting to changes in patient behavior
  • Addressing issues regarding health equity

Renee DeSilva“I’ve been struck over the past year about how health care has been impacted but also how impactful the industry has been in terms of really helping to navigate our response,” DeSilva noted in her introductions. “The public health response and economic recovery are so tightly linked … so conversations like this are of key importance.”

Developing Partnerships

In discussing the difference between the response now and in the spring, Samet said, “We’re much more prepared this time.” In the spring, the response was all about the physical issues like how to attain PPEs and ventilators and learning the medicine. “Today is all about our people.”

On the response scale and size, Sowers noted, “No one system can do this by itself. It really does take partnerships.” He said Hopkins moved people around within the system and worked with UMMS on a public/private partnership. “We wanted to be consistent in our messaging [with UMMS] about the science,” Sowers said.

“It does take a partnership to really muster the response that we need for the citizens of Maryland,” Suntha added. “Partnerships have been a core tenant of how the community has responded. COVID-19 has served as an incredible accelerant in how to think and act like an integrated health system.”

Samet agreed that partnerships with other trusted voices are critically important.

Health Care Inequity

Dr. Mohan Suntha, President and Chief Executive Officer of University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS)Suntha noted that COVID-19 has “brought to the forefront some of the realities that have existed in our nation” for a very long time. He said it’s about education, letting the science speak and trusted voices. “We should be able to be the voice of science. We should all consider it a failure if those who have the greatest risk are the least vaccinated.”

Telehealth and Other Advancements

The panelists agreed that the increased use of telehealth has been one of the positive outcomes of the pandemic.

“It lets us connect with people who need us to connect with them more often,” Samet said. “We need to think about how everyone is connected in a way so they don’t have to take off work for an appointment.”

Sowers believes telehealth is one of the good things to come out of this crisis. “I hope that it is part of our future.”

Another lesson learned, Suntha said, is “the speed with which decisions can be made. This is an opportunity for us to improve our processes as a nation.”

Speaking the Truth

“The virus was so politicized that science had to rule. We decided we were going to be the truth-tellers,” Sowers said about the website Hopkins set up that quickly became a go-to resource nationwide. He added that Hopkins also has consulted with representatives from the movie, music and business industries, among others, on how to go back to work safely.

As advice to community leaders, Suntha said that they should have clarity in the communication approach to the workforce. “As business leaders, personal responsibility and personal decisions send a very clear message,” he said, noting leaders have a responsibility to communicate expectations.

Samet said the entire theme of the discussion should be “a trusted voice” and suggested business leaders create an environment that allows for trusted, safe conversation. He stressed the importance of an open dialogue.

Workforce Issues

Many health care workers are dealing with issues of post-traumatic stress, mental fatigue and burnout.

Kevin W. Sowers, President of Johns Hopkins Health System and Vice President of Johns Hopkins MedicineSowers noted that among his staff he’s seen:

  • People afraid of catching the virus themselves
  • People staying at hotels to avoid infecting family members
  • Specific impact on the African-American and Latinx communities
  • Xenophobia toward Asian colleagues
  • People trying to cope with issues of social injustice and racial inequity following the death of George Floyd and others
  • 1,400 people on antidepressants who had no prior history of depression

He said, “It’s OK to not be OK right now” and added that there is no one-size fits all fix for this.

Samet commented on the issue that these health care workers are saving people’s lives who may not be following safety protocols. “People take for granted, at times, that they are counting on a nurse, physician … being there for them when they need them.” He added that “it’s a psychological burden for health care workers to take care of people who disregard safety procedures.”

Suntha shared an anecdote about a nurse who told him, “I don’t feel like a hero anymore. I’m just tired.”

Preparing for the Vaccine

All three panelists said they would strongly encourage staff members to take the vaccine and noted that business leaders would be instrumental in communicating the message.

Kenneth A. Samet, President and Chief Executive Officer of MedStar Health“We all want the economy open, but we can’t do that unless we get the virus under reasonable control,” Samet said.

“The community should have confidence that we’re doing the things we need to do to distribute the vaccine,” Samet said. He advised leaders to openly share the science and be a trusted voice.

Sowers noted that due to the negative history of vaccine trials among some groups, “we are going to have to do a lot of work in the community on education.” He recommended reaching out to churches and other community leaders to get them onboard with the messaging.

In Conclusion

Sowers: “Continue to connect the heart and the head. People are tired and you’ve got to give them hope.” He added that it’s all about the science, the research and training the next generation.

Samet: “A simple ‘thank you’ matters.” He also stressed the importance of acceptance and clarity concerning health differences in various communities.

Suntha: “Our future is incredibly bright. We’re only going to excel … as we get through to the other side of this challenge.”

Also see:

COVID-19: GBC Coverage and Response

Special Update on State and Federal Legislation Related to COVID-19

Coverage of GBC Member companies’ philanthropic responses to COVID-19

News Coverage of GBC COVID-19 Events