Adjust your mindset and get used to the “new normal”

Knox reached out to some of our graduates who are working in the healthcare industry for their perspectives on the COVID-19 pandemic.

From Stephanie (O’Brien) Schmidt ’08, director of operations Women’s & Children’s, Academic Medical Center Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), Portland, Ore.

Tell us about your work, your duties and responsibilities, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
OHSU has 576 beds including 151 devoted to Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. Reporting to the vice president of Women’s and Children’s, I support the operations of our children’s hospital and women’s services. This includes both strategic projects like expanding service lines and community partnerships as well as managing over 30 staff members from child life specialists, echo sonographers and a group dedicated to pediatric population health.

Leadership only works if people feel supported and the baseline communication skills are critical as the environment changes every day.

Has the pandemic changed your role at work, and if so, how?
The work from home mandate was established for all non-essential employees including management almost a month ago. This was challenging because a majority of my staff are “critical employees” who are required to stay onsite. Those who were deemed non-critical got placed into a labor pool to help support other areas of the hospital like logistics and food services. All strategic work has stopped including any expansion projects or those that required additional resources like capital or new employees.

Every night OHSU communications sends updated information on how we are responding to the pandemic including paying people for their time, appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), new visitor policies, etc. All work has shifted to ensure frontline staff are equipped with the latest procedures and PPE.

More broadly, how is the pandemic affecting what you see at work on a regular basis, e.g., employee workloads, the number of patients seeking help?
All elective surgeries have been postponed at OHSU to respond to the surge in projected patients. Oregon’s quarantine response has resulted in a dramatic dip in actual cases. We continue to work to be prepared but the volume of cases in Oregon is manageable therefore our hospital census is low. On the ambulatory/outpatient clinic side we are finally seeing the push towards telemedicine where over 80 percent of our visits are now done virtually. This is a huge win for the industry and our patients who travel for hours to receive specialized care.

Due to the decrease in volume OHSU is projecting over a $400M loss this year. Our president has guaranteed that everyone will receive pay until June 30, the end of our fiscal year. Thereafter we could see layoffs or cut salaries to offset the financial impact. It is a Catch-22 because once restrictions are lifted we will be flooded by all the non-emergent care that has been postponed and we will need to maintain staffing levels to respond.

What is a fact and/or piece of advice you can offer to people to help them understand what is happening and how they should respond to maintain their health as well as they can?
Oregon is a fantastic example of slowing the spread, the West Coast took the mandates seriously closing hiking trails, bars, salons, etc. After about a month in, people are starting to feel the social pressure of needing to get out but we need to learn from other countries that have “opened” up too soon. Advice would be to adjust your mindset and get comfortable with this new normal for the foreseeable future.

Is there any way in which your Knox education has helped you adapt to the current moment?
Knox provided a strong foundation in critical thinking and communications through the liberal arts education. Leadership only works if people feel supported and the baseline communication skills are critical as the environment changes every day.

What are you looking forward to once life returns to something more closely resembling “normal”?
Our communities will rally around small businesses to keep them open. I am eager to see how this “distancing” will impact the healthcare industry, if telemedicine really becomes the new normal rather than a sexy new strategy. It is akin to the education industry which is going through a similar shift moving from in person to online. Healthcare has always had a long road to become a “millennial centered” industry and COVID-19 is the exact push to get us out of the past. Healthcare still uses pagers and fax machines!!

Is there anything else you would like to add?
Healthcare workers are brave and work really hard to serve our community. Each frontline worker should continue to be honored for their commitment to humanity.

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