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The Road Ahead

Lessons of COVID-19 Will Yield Lasting Change in Healthcare

The COVID-19 pandemic is a once-a-century event that is certain to transform our lives – and our healthcare – for years to come. We gathered perspectives from healthcare leaders on the unprecedented challenges presented by the coronavirus, as well as the opportunities for New Jersey on the road ahead. 

cathy bennettCathy Bennett 

President and CEO 

New Jersey Hospital Association 

 Greatest challenge: This pandemic has underscored in a tragic fashion the healthcare disparities that exist in our vulnerable populations, from senior citizens to communities of color. Moving forward, the entirety of our country’s healthcare system must focus on doing a better job of conquering those disparities. However, another lingering impact of the pandemic that we must prioritize is the resiliency of our healthcare heroes who have been on the front line of this fight from the beginning. They have held patients’ hands so they wouldn’t die alone, they have seen their colleagues get sick, and they have risked their own health and their family’s health on a daily basis. And tragically, like many New Jersey families who have lost people they love, we have lost members of our healthcare community to this pandemic. There will undoubtedly be long-term post-traumatic stress and other mental health impacts for years to come, and we must ensure that the necessary supports are in place to address those issues. 

 The road ahead: We are confident that many of the innovations spurred by this pandemic will remain in place after it recedes – and they should. Telehealth is a perfect example of using technology in a way that makes healthcare more efficient, accessible and affordable for healthcare consumers. That’s a win-win-win that must continue. We also hope that the pandemic will result in greater focus and action in areas like health equity and social determinants of health. Racism, inclusion, violence, food access, transportation, housing – all are an indelible part of health and must be woven into future healthcare policy. 

 Reflections on an unprecedented year: As one of the nation’s first COVID-19 hotspots, New Jersey hospitals and their healthcare teams helped write the playbook in how to treat this novel virus. It is inspiring to see our healthcare heroes rise to the challenge and share their expertise with their colleagues across New Jersey and the rest of the country. One of the most telling examples of their clinical expertise was this finding from NJHA’s Center for Health Analytics, Research and Transformation: Between April and August 2020, the mortality rate for COVID-19 patients hospitalized in New Jersey fell 75%. That is a tremendous achievement, and it has resulted in tens of thousands of lives saved.

Philip J. Driscoll, Jr., FACHE 

CEO 

Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation 

 Greatest challenge: The pandemic cast a harsh light on the social inequities of healthcare. Data shows that communities of color and lower socio-economic levels were hardest hit. Nowhere was this more evident than in our own hospitals. At Kessler Institute, we provided post-acute rehabilitation to many of these individuals, helping them overcome the physical and functional challenges of COIVD-19. We learned many of them were essential workers who braved public transportation to get to a job they desperately need to pay rent or feed their families, and we came to understand their fears and frustrations. Our staff, many of whom live in these same communities, came to work every day, often becoming surrogate families to our patients, especially with visitations restricted. That commitment to providing care and support to every patient is perhaps the one constant that prevailed throughout the pandemic, and I would be remiss if I didn’t express our gratitude to our Kessler staff. 

 The road ahead: Our greatest opportunity to improve health and healthcare in New Jersey can be summed up in one word: Teamwork. Across the care continuum, we are witnessing more affiliations, collaborations and partnerships that are effectively breaking down historic barriers to care coordination. This new level of cooperation – teamwork – will surely advance care delivery and patient outcomes. The implementation of innovative strategies targeting the social inequities of care will impact the health of our most vulnerable communities. Furthermore, the value proposition of each sector in the post-acute care continuum continues to strengthen, leading to improved health at a lower cost. 

 Reflections on an unprecedented year: The pandemic has upended our lives – professionally and personally. We have lost family, friends and colleagues. Businesses have shuttered. However, through it all, the human spirit proved itself to be strong and resilient. At Kessler, we saw that uncommon determination in our patients and our staff. Indeed, there are heroes among us: those who fought the pain, uncertainty and isolation caused by this disease, those who rose to every challenge and those in our communities who showed their support through cards, cookies and more. COVID-19 has taught us many clinical and operational lessons, but perhaps the most significant is that by working together, there’s nothing we can’t do to help those in need heal.

Brian Gragnolati 

President and CEO 

Atlantic Health System 

 Greatest challenge: The pandemic dramatically highlighted what data has shown us for years, that social determinants of health – social and economic conditions affecting individuals and populations – have as much to do with our well-being as the medical care we receive. Access to clean water, nutritious food, education and safe housing are as important to our mental and physical health as preventative care and screenings. COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted communities already battling health disparities because of social and economic conditions. No one organization or community will be able to overcome these obstacles alone. It will require the cooperation of individuals, community physicians, hospitals and health systems, leaders in public health, government and business, and grassroots advocacy to transform this challenge into better health for us all. 

 The road ahead: As we continue to tackle health equity, I am excited about the promise within the already approved and upcoming vaccines against COVID-19. The product of groundbreaking scientific advancements, these vaccines are showing us all the light at the end of the tunnel. They are also proof of how much we can achieve when we work together for the greater good, and how quickly we can turn the corner – even amidst major challenges – to provide hope for better days. After so many losses to families across our state, knowing that we now have the power to fight back through these vaccines is a great relief and a tremendous opportunity. 

 Reflections on an unprecedented year: I can’t say enough about our caregivers, amazing people who devote their lives to caring for others. They were on the front line saving lives and keeping patients and families connected throughout the surges and are now vaccinating our neighbors to protect our communities. 2020 is a year many would like to forget, but I will always remember the strength and compassion of our healthcare heroes.

Dennis Pullin 

President and CEO 

Virtua Health 

 Greatest challenge: The pandemic put a giant spotlight on the health disparities in our region and beyond. Life expectancy in Camden is 16 years shorter than life expectancy in Cherry Hill – and those communities are only seven miles apart. I cite that statistic often because attention must be paid. Health systems have an obligation to address such inequality. Through Virtua’s “Eat Well” food access programs, we became acutely aware of how the pandemic compounded hunger among families that were already struggling to get by. I’m pleased that our recently launched Eat Well Mobile Grocery Store is making fresh, affordable foods more readily available, but there is still tremendous work to be done. 

 The road ahead: The pandemic not only accelerated telemedicine options, but also people’s willingness to embrace virtual experiences. While I am a proponent of in-person care and consultations, I hope that telemedicine continues to flourish as it helps people stay connected to their health. Undoubtedly, we live in a digital, on-demand world, and so it is vital for health systems to prioritize convenience, access and first-rate service. 

 Reflections on an unprecedented year: When I first came to New Jersey in 2017, I quickly observed how people support, comfort and care for one another. Even now, when we are often physically apart, that spirit of community shines through. I can’t begin to count the expressions of gratitude Virtua and its colleagues have received in the past year. Recently, a middle-school teacher dropped off a bag of hand-drawn valentines her students made for the staff at the Burlington County vaccine mega-site. Those types of gestures and people remind you why New Jersey is a remarkable place to live and work.

Kevin Slavin 

President and CEO 

St. Joseph’s Health 

 Greatest challenge: The COVID-19 pandemic has been the biggest disrupter in healthcare, hitting us hard and fast. As the pandemic unfolded, it significantly accelerated healthcare transformation. What typically would have taken five years took five months. Very rapidly over the past year, we’ve adapted to new care environments, alternate treatment settings, a remote workforce, and new roles for clinicians. As an industry, we continue to flex to make permanent what had seemed like temporary changes. 

When change is upon us, we in healthcare adapt – quickly – to best meet the needs of our community. COVID-19 has reinforced our aim to offer patients the right care at the right time and in the right setting, and we continue to implement the tools to do so. 

 The road ahead: Our people – from the frontline care teams to our support departments to our lab technicians – are remarkable at navigating us through challenging times. Throughout the pandemic, they have been developing and implementing innovative solutions to put in place immediately. They did this at the height of COVID-19, and will continue to do so going forward. 

 Reflections on an unprecedented year: Throughout our collective COVID battle, we began to collaborate in new and better ways. The pandemic opened doors to new relationships – within our organizations, throughout the region, and around the state. Here in New Jersey, we witnessed an incredible amount of teamwork at all levels, resulting in sustained collaboration.

Doug Struyk 

President and CEO 

Christian Health Care Center
2021 Chair, NJHA Board 

 Greatest challenge: COVID-19 revealed health disparities among our most vulnerable communities, most notably the aged and people of color. The combined impact of the pandemic and the social awakening surrounding racism and inequity is propelling healthcare providers in New Jersey to ACT through awareness, change and transformation to ensure equity and access to healthcare across all populations. 

Across all levels of care, we continue to marshal our resources, redefine processes, draw upon our clinical capabilities, and meet challenges head on. Healthcare providers all continue to work to ensure access to all care, with emphasis on safety and quality, first and foremost. 

 The road ahead: By fostering innovation and collaboration at the public and private levels of healthcare delivery, we can improve efficiencies and outcomes. By refocusing our energies on healthcare continuum cross-cutting issues and policies, we can: 1) promote healthy communities in areas such as mental-health parity; 2) preserve and expand insurance coverage; 3) advocate for regulatory issues and reform that recognize the unique fiscal and other challenges of the New Jersey market; 4) enable quality, person-centered post-acute care to be properly funded; and lastly, address societal issues, like housing and food security, that we know are inseparable from good health. 

 Reflections on an unprecedented year: The pandemic’s effect on behavioral health was enormous. As COVID-19 spread, requests for help at Christian Health Care Center’s outpatient counseling programs, which had transitioned to virtual sessions, escalated. Our therapists continue to help ease the anxiety, depression and stress caused by the pandemic, isolation and disruptions to normal routines. Healing these behavioral-health issues is vital because there is no health without mental health. 

The pandemic also united healthcare organizations throughout the state. We opened daily communication with each other, with the New Jersey Department of Health and other state and national agencies and officials, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and with other experts for assistance with guiding, establishing and heightening infection prevention and control measures and best practices. Despite the many uncertainties and challenges, we entered the COVID-19 battle together to protect the residents of New Jersey.

Deb Visconi 

President and CEO 

Bergen New Bridge Medical Center 

 Greatest challenge: COVID-19 revealed many health challenges. Perhaps the most disconcerting was the inequity of healthcare access, which created the disproportionate impact of the virus. The pandemic uncovered underserved populations – the elderly, Black and Brown communities, LGBTQ, Latinx, just to name a few that needed care and didn’t have the means to obtain it. Healthcare inequities exacerbated during the pandemic must never occur again. Healthcare systems must be equipped with metrics and a commitment to direct resources where they are needed most. 

 The road ahead: In healthcare, the silver lining of the pandemic’s dark cloud should be collaboration. This means collaboration on all levels, including amongst providers, between payors and providers, and partnerships between communities, providers and local, state and federal government. Communication needs to go hand in glove with collaboration. We learned that not having a strong, unified message compounded the fear, angst and misinformation surrounding COVID-19 and this continues with the vaccination process. Further, we must find ways to maximize technology to reach underserved communities. 

 Reflections on an unprecedented year: Our ability to pivot instantly and effectively, to break down barriers between organizations for the greater good, to change, to develop and maintain resilience and determination provided the light we needed to get through the dark pandemic nights. These things fueled by the power of community, were incredibly motivating. It helped direct resources, provide staff support, and foster true innovation. The support of our community and elected officials allowed us to secure resources, take care of our staff and identify communities that needed our help. Working together for the greater good helped us to launch massive testing programs, build alternate care facilities and develop large vaccination programs.

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