Denise Chamberlain, CPA, MAEd, CFO at Edward-Elmhurst Health, reflected on the past year, shared how the Illinois-based system avoided short-sighted decisions, and what care challenges exist post-COVID.
With domestic cases of COVID-19 steadily declining and an effective nationwide vaccination effort well underway, hope for a relatively ‘normal’ summer looms.
This potential return to normalcy also provides hospital and health system leaders with the chance to reflect and analyze the past year. Leading through a crisis, healthcare CFOs made choices that were critical for both the short-term and long-term fate of their respective systems.
Over the past several weeks, HealthLeaders has spoken with CFOs from OSF Healthcare, Cogdell Memorial Hospital, and RWJBarnabas Health about how each organization responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and how healthcare finance has changed during the outbreak.
Continuing that trend, HealthLeaders also spoke with Denise Chamberlain, CPA, MAEd, CFO at Edward-Elmhurst Health, a three-hospital integrated health system based in Naperville, Illinois.
In her interview, Chamberlain said that based on recent patient volume metrics, Edward-Elmhurst leadership is hoping that the organization has “turned the corner” after a “roller-coaster” period during the previous 12 months.
Chamberlain said the organization has rebounded from the financial challenges that resulted from the temporary cancellation of elective surgeries, though she acknowledged that patients have expressed concerns with returning to physical medical offices due to fears of being infected.
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She echoed the observations of CFOs at other health systems, noting that the lack of the seasonal flu affected inpatient volumes that were already lower than usual during the winter.
“It's just been a real roller-coaster. What we saw in January and February was difficult, but it looks like in March and through the predictions that we're seeing, that we are hopefully bouncing back financially and looking forward to getting back to pre-COVID-19 levels and having an initial surge from some suppressed volumes.”
Reestablishing trust with patients
When looking to the future and restoring patient volumes to pre-pandemic levels, Chamberlain said the dynamic relies on convincing Edward-Elmhurst’s care populations that going to the hospital is safe. The system is trying to accomplish this through a combination of media appearances and marketing campaigns touting the safety of receiving in-person care coupled with a public health mission to advocate for vaccinations.
Chamberlain said Edward-Elmhurst has spent considerable resources to stand up vaccination clinics as well as an online portal to schedule appointments.
Chamberlain added that Edward-Elmhurst’s clinical staff has been proactively reaching out to patients that had scheduled appointments canceled during the pandemic. She said it was important for patients to reschedule preventive care appointments, as many in the industry forecast a sizable increase in demand for procedures and have sounded the alarm for missed screenings.
“With [preventative care] like cancer screenings and things like that, people are going to come back to get that done, and unfortunately, cancer didn't go on hiatus when COVID came,” Chamberlain said. “So, what's going to come out of that is probably a higher incidence of cancer in later stages than what would have been without [COVID], which will have a higher cost of care and a higher demand.”
Reflecting from a leader’s perspective
Looking back on her service during a prolonged period of crisis, Chamberlain said she felt “blessed” to lead Edward-Elmhurst’s financial operations.
She described the start of the pandemic as dealing with “tornadoes” for around 30 to 45 days, working with banks to ensure that Edward-Elmhurst had enough liquidity to manage through the initial storm.
Chamberlain said the next phase of responding to the virus was predicated on providing full transparency to the organization’s board, which she said provided the health system’s leadership with support. She said the collective mindset was to avoid short-sighted decision-making, maintain performance at a financially strong level, and focus on how to reemerge post-pandemic in a position of strength.
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One short-term move by Edward-Elmhurst’s leadership was to pause certain strategic projects to alleviate capital constraints. Once the financial picture stabilized, she said the organization resumed strategic initiatives that they felt were critical to future success after the pandemic was over.
A significant area of focus was investing in data analytics, with Chamberlain noting that Edward-Elmhurst is implementing a new ERP system and developing its ambulatory practices.
Chamberlain said that her CFO peers should remain focused on the mission at hand during a crisis and plan for what the landscape will look like after the dust settles.
“That's probably my biggest piece of advice to anybody: when you're in the thick of it, don't forget about the future and don't sacrifice the future or you’re going to be worse off,” she said.
Additionally, Chamberlain said that the system, like many across the country, instituted short-term benefit cuts in the wake of the outbreak, but quickly restored them once the organization’s financial footing stabilized. During the winter surge of cases, Chamberlain said that Edward-Elmhurst also offered enhanced compensation for clinical staff.
Providing resources and emotional support was imperative as frontline workers faced the brunt of the pandemic and experienced burnout, Chamberlain said. She praised the leadership of Mary Lou Mastro, CEO of Edward-Elmhurst, for emphasizing the organization’s commitment to patient care. A nurse by training, Mastro’s perspective and belief in the system’s employees and culture were crucial to guiding Edward-Elmhurst over the past year of disarray, according to Chamberlain.
“We’ve all heard that there a lot of nurses that have chosen to retire or plan on changing professions after this; they're exhausted and we just wanted to let our workforce know that we appreciate them, we still want them here, that there's a place for them after this is over,” Chamberlain said.
Related: After $92M Error, Edward-Elmhurst CEO Urges Others to Audit Accounts Receivable
Jack O'Brien is the Content Team Lead and Finance Editor at HealthLeaders, an HCPro brand.