President and CEO Roxanna Gapstur shares the health system's strategies on caring for rural and underserved populations in Pennsylvania during the coronavirus pandemic.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Pennsylvania has over 99,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus as of July 20, across the state's 67 counties.
WellSpan Health serves a diverse group of communities across 5 counties in southeast Pennsylvania: Adams, Franklin, Lancaster, Lebanon, and York Counties. They also serve one county in northern Maryland. Since the beginning of the pandemic in March, WellSpan has actively invested in taking care of its communities.
WellSpan Health President and CEO Roxanna Gapstur, PhD, RN, spoke with HealthLeaders about the importance of caring for their communities during the pandemic, which include underserved and rural populations.
"Our main message is just that we are a trusted partner for our community, that we're leading the way during the pandemic," Gapstur says. "We're just committed to our communities and being a catalyst in building both health equity and ensuring that our communities have the very best care."
This is part one of a two-part interview series. Part two will focus on WellSpan Health's strategic initiatives to serve the diverse communities in their care, including the Amish and Plain Community, Latinx, migrants, and homeless populations.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Roxanna Gapstur, PhD, RN, President, CEO, WellSpan Health (Photo courtesy of WellSpan Health)
HealthLeaders: What has the COVID-19 pandemic looked like in WellSpan's hospitals and the communities you serve?
Dr. Roxanna Gapstur: It's been interesting across our five counties. In March, we saw higher levels of positive tests in our Eastern most counties—Lebanon and Lancaster, which are closer to Philadelphia and New York.
And then it slowly spread across our counties. I would say that we have not been in crisis, although we've had a very steady state of positive patients in our hospitals. We generally have a number of patients somewhere between 50 and 60 every day across our system.
HL: What short-term and long-term goals are you working toward to serve your community post-pandemic?
Gapstur: We have a few things that we're working on. We're looking at how do we develop plans for a better public health infrastructure in South Central Pennsylvania. We're working with our elected officials, government; as many people as are interested in developing that public health infrastructure and supporting policy changes that will help us have a better infrastructure for the future.
We're looking at creating contact tracing programs that can be reactivated as needed throughout the pandemic. And then, we're trying to develop more robust support for our long-term care facilities in our region. We've done a lot of work supporting long-term care throughout the last five months. We've had weekly calls, we've shared PPE and other supplies with our long-term care facilities, [and] we've given advice on infection control, but there does need to be robust support for those facilities going forward.
In the short term, in the public health area, we're looking at how can we do mobile testing in some of our communities. For instance, in the Plain Community, it would be helpful to be able to go to them and consider mobile testing options.
HL: Why is it important to focus on rural communities during the COVID-19 pandemic? And how does WellSpan Health lead in taking care of its surrounding rural communities?
Gapstur: Sometimes in rural areas we might lack some of the resources that urban areas have when it comes to healthcare. Also, if [COVID-19 safety protocol] messaging isn't as strong or as prevalent, the virus can spread and create more havoc. Many of our counties have rural areas where we are providing care. We would like to try and provide what we call 'local systems of care' where we've enhanced the support and the specialized services in our communities so people can get care close to home.
Another important reason to focus on rural communities is just to make sure that we're improving health outcomes in those communities at the same rate that we're doing so in the rest of our country. [WellSpan is] focused on providing things like transportation, housing, fresh food.
HL: Why is it important for hospitals and health systems to focus on social determinants of health and serving underserved populations?
Gapstur: We think everyone should have access to the best healthcare, and we believe that your healthcare shouldn't be determined by the zip code you live in.
What happens at the doctor's office, or the hospital, is only about 20% of what contributes to healthy outcomes. The other 80% is influenced by other factors that a lot of us have talked about—social determinants of health. Things like transportation, housing, fresh food, access to healthcare. We have some key priorities in the social determinants area in our organization, including food and housing.
We came right out early on in the pandemic with some strategies to help address social determinants and underserved populations.
Some of those things were: not charging for COVID-19 testing or treatment, … [and] making sure that we're addressing social, demographic, behavioral, and economic issues for our populations. We've also got some serious commitments and funding that our board has put behind that, as well as an endowment fund to ensure that we have consistent funding for social health risks in Central Pennsylvania.
HL: What are some of the financial investments WellSpan Health has made in terms of COVID-19 and taking care of your communities during the pandemic?
Gapstur: We [give out] community grants to organizations in our five-county area. One of the things that we realized as the pandemic was just hitting, was that organizations were going to need help supporting the people and the constituents that were coming to them. And so we started something called the Slow the Spread Grant, which was a great way for us to be able to fund short- and medium-term strategies that our community organizations needed to put in place as they were trying to help people.
It could have been food or housing; it could have been virtual care; it could have been medical, PPE, and those kinds of things. We tried to partner with community organizations to support them to support others.
WellSpan Health is an integrated health system with that serves the communities of central Pennsylvania and northern Maryland with more than 200 care locations, including eight hospitals. Pictured above are the following WellSpan hospitals (clockwise, from top left): WellSpan Good Samaritan Hospital in Lebanon, WellSpan Philhaven behavioral health hospital in Mt. Gretna, WellSpan Ephrata Community Hospital, WellSpan York Hospital, WellSpan Chambersburg Hospital, WellSpan Surgery and Rehabilitation Hospital in York, WellSpan Gettysburg Hospital and WellSpan Waynesboro Hospital. Photo Credit: WellSpan Health
“Another important reason to focus on rural communities is just to make sure that we're improving health outcomes in those communities at the same rate that we're doing so in the rest of our country.”
— Roxanna Gapstur, PhD, RN, President, CEO, WellSpan Health
Melanie Blackman is the strategy editor at HealthLeaders, a Simplify Compliance brand.
WellSpan Health created the Slow the Spread Grant to fund short- and medium-term strategies for community organizations to help people.
The health system is working to improve support for long-term care facilities in their region, the WellSpan CEO says.