Blog Post

Healthcare Upside/Down: Never Waste a Good Crisis

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ECG’s radio show and podcast, Healthcare Upside Down, offers unfiltered perspectives on what’s working in US healthcare and what’s not. Hosted by ECG principal Dr. Nick van Terheyden, each episode features guest panelists who explore the upsides and downsides of healthcare in the US—and how to make the system work for everyone.

One of the most shocking aspects of the pandemic was the suddenness with which everyday life was transformed. One day we were going to work, the next we were not. No less surprising was how quickly so many organizations and individuals adjusted to this new environment. Watercooler conversations were out, Zoom sessions were in.

Joining us on episode 39 of Healthcare Upside Down is Reid Stephan, CIO of St. Luke’s Health System.

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No one was immune from the impact of the pandemic, but it uniquely affected the healthcare world, which not only endured the same limitations on in-person attendance as other industries but also found itself on the front line of dealing with patients suffering from a novel disease.

But behind the heroes in masks, scrubs, and white coats were other essential staff who run systems, schedule cases, order and stock supplies, and make our healthcare system work from behind the scenes. Most of those employees found themselves physically displaced from their workplace and relegated to a home office that for many did not exist and was ill-equipped for the role it now had to fill.

As life gradually returns to “normal,” what has this unplanned experiment in working remotely taught us?

Reid Stephan, Chief Information Officer at St. Luke’s Health System, successfully navigated the rapid shift to remote work. He joins us on episode 39 of Healthcare Upside Down to talk about building a new sense of team spirit and using the crisis to drive innovation. Here are a few excerpts.

Cultural impact of remote work.

“One thing we hadn’t really thought of deeply was the cultural impact of suddenly going from office dwellers to home dwellers. How do you maintain the serendipitous relationships that happen at a printer or at the coffee station? What we found was that individual teams actually started to bond more closely than they had in the office because they were doing virtual daily huddles. And in those, you would see someone’s background picture, or you would see an animal walk by in the background or a child. And so people made more human connections than they did in the office. But then we noticed that with inter-team dynamics, silos slowly started to grow, and those walls thickened, because the work became much more transactional between teams. We’ve had to be really intentional about acknowledging that risk, and then learning together—what can we do to create connections? That’s been an ongoing conversation, it’s still something we’re mindful of today.”

Breaking down walls.

“I do small group meetings, where twice a month, I get together with 10 to 20 folks in the department and just have a casual, virtual fireside chat. And I’m always just asking, ‘what are you sensing? What are your ideas?’ And so a wealth of perspective and ideas came in from the department. And then as we executed on some of those ideas, we had vested participants. But I think the secret sauce for us was not trying to have my group of senior leaders sit in a conference room and figure something out. If it’s a department problem, let’s bring the department along and address this. And we’ve tried to create an inviting work space as people come into the office. There are some fun things— we put an arcade machine in the office—combined with normal work activities to create those human connections so that people refer to each other by name versus by a team or a function name.”

Making work—wherever it occurs—more enjoyable.

“We’ve looked at ways to automate repetitive tasks, the elements of someone’s job that suck the joy out of them, to free up capacity for employees to work at a higher level of their licensure or expertise, or maybe just to give them a break in their day. And we’re really focusing on figuring out this hybrid balance. We rejected extreme views; one is ‘be in the office five days a week, we’re going to have pressure monitors on your seats to make sure you’re there,’ and the other is ‘we’re going to sell all of our buildings and everyone works remote.’ I think those are both problematic. So we’re trying to find that middle spot of giving employees flexibility, which is what they want. We don’t want to lose talent based on having [employees] come to the office just for the sake of coming to the office.”

On the podcast, Reid expands on the challenges his department encountered and the opportunity to build community in the wake of a crisis.

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Edited by: Matt Maslin