When the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the country, hospital CEOs had no playbook to follow to navigate through the worst public health threat in more than a century. Hospitals relied on their leaders’ experience and skills to help suppress a mounting crisis that created severe staffing and supply shortages, overcrowded conditions, suspension of medical services and much more.
Community hospitals had the highest risk of closures during the pandemic, particularly those already struggling to stay open. The hospitals that prevailed through the outbreak owe much of their success to their leaders’ adept maneuvering in crisis situations.
But the work is far from over. Healthcare executives must continue to carefully guide their hospitals through the lingering pandemic and prepare for future crises. This includes a detailed assessment of what did and didn’t work to mitigate the pandemic’s impact.
If you are a hospital CEO—or aspire to be—you will be expected to master these skills when your hospital is faced with unexpected challenges and crises.
Establishing an incident command center.
Hospital CEOs need to ensure a constant flow of information is available during a major crisis like the pandemic. CEOs skilled in quickly managing and coordinating information will set up an incident command center to allow leadership teams to effectively plan and respond to unforeseen public health emergencies.
Understanding government funding.
CEOs should understand the intricacies of government funding and develop good working relationships with the agencies responsible for hospital funding. This expertise is especially important for community hospital CEOs whose facilities received stimulus funds because of the pandemic’s impact on rural areas. CEOs can demonstrate good stewardship by working closely with the CFO to document the funding and regularly interacting with government agencies to ensure funds are used appropriately, among other requirements.
Managing group purchasing organization relationships.
Once the pandemic hit, hospital CEOs needed to swiftly learn best practices in averting supply shortages. An engaged CEO understands supply chain operations well enough to comprehend why changes will drive organizational efficiency and cost savings. It’s also essential for the CEO to understand the purchasing process at a high level and whether the hospital’s GPO can ensure adequate supplies of PPE, even during a crisis. The CEO should quiz their GPO on what contracts are in place, how often those contracts are reviewed, the selection criteria used, and whether prices for supplies are competitive and purchased through established contracts.
Sizing up the regulatory landscape.
When state governments ordered hospitals to cease elective medical procedures in 2020, it contributed to a significant drop in revenue and patient volume for hospitals, particularly for those in rural areas. CEOs must be involved in such regulatory decisions and initiate steps to cushion their blow to hospital operations, including advocating with elected officials. It’s also important for CEOs to understand how the hospital’s compliance staff monitors regulations, and the processes clinical staff must follow.
Communicating with providers.
The pandemic created a chaotic environment for clinical staff faced with myriad challenges in performing their duties. It’s the responsibility of the CEO to keep clinicians regularly informed and motivated in crisis situations. Providing regular and open communications during a crisis is a key trait of prudent leadership, a must-have quality for CEOs.
Promoting local healthcare services.
The pandemic’s impact on our communities underscores the importance of access to local and quality medical care at community hospitals. CEOs need to help create greater awareness of their hospital’s reputation and the services it provides to the community. During the pandemic, community and rural hospitals saved the lives of many COVID patients; some of whom previously had not used their community hospital’s services.
Corralling relationship circles.
CEOs must expand professional relationships outside of their hospitals and community to find and use resources needed for a crisis like the pandemic. Creating broader relationship circles gives CEOs better access to resources that will enable them to maintain operational and financial efficiency.
Creating staffing innovations.
The pandemic forced hospital leadership to think outside the box to solve staffing challenges. As one example, some healthcare organizations collaborated with universities and colleges to spur the training of medical workers through residency and mentorship programs. This strategy provided earlier clinical staff placement at hospitals facing staff shortages amid patient surges.
The pandemic may be the most trying time that hospital leaders and staff will ever face. However, we know this will not be the last crisis our hospitals will face. Whether we see another wave of COVID-19, a natural disaster or a cyberattack, CEOs will have to rise to the occasion. Use this learning opportunity to build or sharpen the leadership skills that will inevitably be needed again.