SANDWICH, MA – On March 1, 2020, the New York Times reported: “On Friday, an employee of an elementary school near Portland, Ore., tested positive for the coronavirus and the school, Forest Hills Elementary School in Lake Oswego, was shut down. In Washington State, where a high school student received a diagnosis of coronavirus the same day, officials suggested that people needed to prepare for the possibility of schools closing and businesses keeping workers home. In Santa Clara County, Calif., where another new case was announced, Dr. Sara Cody, the county health officer, said, ‘Schools should plan for absenteeism, and explore options for learning at home and enhanced cleaning of surfaces.'”
Schools closing and businesses keeping workers at home? One year later not much has changed, but a lot has been learned.
For us, it all hit home the week of March 9 when we made the decision to send all employees home that Friday the 13th (of course) with their VOIP phones and computers to plan for what we thought would be a short period of working and servicing our customers remotely…and here we are a year later and most of them are still home. The decision seemed, frankly, insane at the time and I remember more than a few quizzical looks from team members as we began sharing the news. By the following week, most of the domestic economy was shut down and the health crisis began to rapidly accelerate. With that acceleration it came time for the HME sector to begin our response and to step up in a way we have never seen.
I count myself as fortunate to have built a lot of relationships across the HME sector with leaders I have deep respect for. I called a lot of them in March of 2020, and what I heard was inspiring. HMEs of all sizes and product categories were stepping up in local markets to become a key partner with integrated healthcare systems as they began to be stretched to an unsustainable limit. The attitude was one of optimism, support, and one that really said, “this is the moment HME was built for – we are ready to respond and demonstrate the tremendous value HME provides to the U.S. healthcare system.”
I continue to believe the pandemic response has helped to reset the HME community in the eyes of key US healthcare system stakeholders and demonstrated the real value that our teams provide in the communities we serve. If the future of US healthcare is indeed value based, connected healthcare in the home, 2020 showed a lot of people how HME does it and the likely role we can play as the US healthcare system reshapes itself around a more sustainable delivery system. HME is the last mile infrastructure the US healthcare system needs to lay the groundwork for this future.
Lessons learned could be its own coffee table book, but I will keep it to three keys;
1) Authentic leadership and transparency
In one of the first notes to our entire company around this issue we said the following: “Our priority is the health and safety of our team members and patients. We believe we can effectively manage the health and safety of those constituencies while also ensuring the delivery of products.” We said their health and safety mattered, and it did—and they believed us because our leadership team has spent decades communicating openly and honestly with our teams, during good times and bad. But we also said, we can do this. We are not shutting the company down, we are just going to work differently, from different locations, and in ways many of us never thought possible—but we will do it together. I believe that companies, in all sectors, that were led by well intentioned, thoughtful leaders before the pandemic will radically outperform those that were not. During a generationally trying moment, successful teams trusted their leaders who had their best interests in mind; and in 2020 that mattered, more than ever.
The key to a functioning distributed workforce is a technology infrastructure that is agile enough to accommodate rapid change. Cloud based solutions that are easily updated and rearranged were in huge demand during the spring of 2020, but if you were shopping for them then, it was already too late. We are fortunate to have technology partners who are forward thinking and have built solutions that made our workforce experience seamless as we transitioned to alternative work sites. As we look to continue to work differently, that technology will continue to matter and we continue to see opportunities to improve the experience for not just our team members, but also our patients, referral partners and payors.
3) Location agnostic
We are accustomed to recruiting talent within a reasonable driving radius of our facilities, because historically you had to show up at one of them to work. In 2020 we learned, at scale, that was not the case. So, what will recruiting for talent look like going forward and how wide a net can we cast when looking to bring on new team members? We do not have all the answers there yet and clearly feel we will have more people at our facilities before the end of the year, but we have also seen the capabilities we unlocked through remote work and look forward to a future where we can onboard team members from across the United States, and beyond.
I believe the future is bright for HMEs that are forward looking and strategic about the role they play within the communities they serve. AAHomecare and others continue to fight and find wins for our sector on the regulatory front, creating a reimbursement environment that while challenging remains more predictable than anything we have seen in the last decade plus. The HME sector can and will find new opportunities for partnership across the healthcare ecosystem and will benefit from a renewed focus on delivering connected healthcare in the home. Many of the lessons we learned during the pandemic will endure and we will deliver a better care experience to our patients and partners.
We also have Medtrade West and East coming up this summer and fall, and I for one cannot wait to get back on a plane and see many of my industry colleagues who have done such amazing work over the last 12 months. That first toast will be well earned and fittingly celebratory.
Gary Sheehan is vice chair of the American Association for Homecare and CEO of Spiro Health,