Meghann Hutchison, CFO of Lovelace Medical Center, details how the organization has weathered the coronavirus outbreak and why telemedicine will be a key component of the reopening process.
Editor's note: This conversation is a transcript from an episode of the HealthLeaders Finance Podcast. Audio of the interview can be found here.
While the outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has infected over 1.3 million people and killed thousands across the country, states are beginning the process of slowly reopening for business.
Hospitals, which temporarily canceled elective procedures to meet the demand caused by the pandemic, are also coming back online, and examining the financial damage they've suffered over the past few months.
Meghann Hutchison is CFO of Lovelace Medical Center, a 263-bed hospital based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that is part of for-profit Ardent Health Services. In a conversation with HealthLeaders, Hutchison details how the organization has weathered the outbreak and why telemedicine will be a key component of the reopening process.
This transcript has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
HealthLeaders: Meghann, how has Lovelace dealt with the COVID-19 outbreak and what has it required from you as a hospital leader?
Hutchison: Our priority, as I feel like it always should be, is to take care of our patients, our community, and our staff. We have solidified several different policies to ensure that we're doing that.
We have increased screenings throughout our facilities—we've got three separate buildings—[so] you have to have your temperature taken and you're asked a series of questions coming in the building at any time. We also have universal masking and we are ensuring that we're isolating COVID-19 patients and prospective patients to keep everybody safe. Safety for our team is key for us. We want to make sure that everyone has appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), that we're following all infection control guidelines, and that we're properly training people how to don and doff with all of their PPE as they're walking into a COVID unit. We continue to do employee daily assessments, making sure if you're getting a fever, let's check you out and make sure that you're OK. If you're not and you're feeling poorly, then you go home but we stay in constant contact with you. We also have reestablished our whole ER triage systems so that we're keeping people behind the line safe through plexiglass and making sure that every precaution that we can take for our team is is being taken.
We were the first in the state to perform drive-thru testing, which I am proud of. Initially, we had specific criteria that we use to screen but, now, we're just encouraging that everybody gets tested. It's advantageous if you find out early if you've got [COVID-19]. Our leaders have collaborated with the state and other systems to prepare. We are one of three health systems in Albuquerque and all of our leaders have gotten together. None of us had an idea of what a surge in New Mexico would look like, so all of us prepared to ensure that if the highest surge were to come that we would be ready. We've made several of our nursing units have negative pressure. This assists in ensuring that the spread doesn't happen through air conditioners; that was a pretty big feat. We have an amazing maintenance guy, so he hit that early in March, which is fantastic. We've supported efforts in social distancing and even prior to any government mandates, we started ramping down our elective procedures to ensure that we were keeping our patients and our staff safe. We're also supporting the New Mexico Department of Health (DOH) and their efforts in keeping New Mexico safe.
HL: As New Mexico, like other states, reopens for business, what is Lovelace's plan to bring elective procedures and surgeries back online?
Hutchison: Well, the first thing is safety; safety first. We want to make sure that we're following all of our policies and all DOH guidelines to ensure that we're always available to care for the sickest of patients. Whether they have COVID or whether they don't have COVID, those things are key. We've got a phased approach to begin surgeries and procedures to make sure we have sufficient supplies, equipment, and staffing to provide a safe and effective environment for our patients and our staff.
I feel like we're going to be kind of ahead of the curve because in the beginning, probably around the middle of March, our providers started offering telemedicine appointments to provide patients with needed care from the safety of their own home. This has allowed us to continue to monitor and manage the care for anybody who had an upcoming procedure. We maintained contact with them, and then we're going to be able to start scheduling the procedures as soon as we can, when it's safe enough for them. We've been able to maintain that constant communication with them through telemedicine, so it's been advantageous.
HL: What is Lovelace's financial standing after more than two months into the pandemic, and how are you bolstering the organization's bottom line ahead of a second or third wave?
Hutchison: Our purpose, regardless of any time, is always to care for others in times of need. I don't think that's any different than any other healthcare providers in our community or even across the globe at this point. Our primary focus remains on meeting the needs of our patients, community, and staff during this pandemic. You're absolutely correct; COVID-19 has had a significant impact on our organization and community. We're appreciative of all the federal and state support received thus far, but healthcare providers across the nation, including us, have been impacted financially, particularly as a result of the government directives to suspend the elective surgeries, procedures, and any type of ambulatory care visits.
[However], we are trying to plan properly so that we're going to be fiscally responsible and ensure that while being fiscally responsible, we're continuing to provide quality care for our patients, and [also] protecting the safety of our community and staff. There's a lot that we look at with a fine-tooth comb and as a finance person, I'm always looking at the bottom line, but always keeping the patient's perspective in mind as my priority, because that's what's appropriate. I think that with proper planning, we're going to be all right. We'll be able to continue to care for everyone during the second and third wave, if it comes towards the fall or winter, where we've got proper segregation and great policies and controls to ensure everybody's safe.
HL: In your opinion, how has the New Mexico healthcare market handled the spread of COVID-19 and what are your expectations for what the provider market will look like in a post-pandemic landscape?
Hutchison: I believe that the New Mexico healthcare market has handled the spread of this [virus] remarkably. Like I'd mentioned, there's been a huge collaboration of New Mexico hospitals and that's been second to none. You're talking about competitors coming together and saying, 'OK, what can we do?' I think we've built lifelong relationships to ensure that we can all come together in this critical time to treat New Mexicans but, then also, it shows that we have the ability to do it quickly if something were to happen again. That's a great thing.
[For the] future, post-pandemic landscape, it's telemedicine. I think that we've experienced successes with primary care and specialist appointments, such as orthopedics or post-operation appointments, that can be done via video visits. That's convenient for patients and allows them to keep their appointment, which is key. But then they don't have to leave. They can stay at home and show the doctor through a video, 'Here's how I'm walking, here's how I'm progressing.' I think that it's a good situation and I think that telemedicine is definitely going to be in our future much more so than it ever has been.
Jack O'Brien is the finance editor at HealthLeaders, a Simplify Compliance brand.