April 11, 2022

Life after COVID-19

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Last month, we passed a significant milestone with COVID-19: the two-year mark since the World Health Organization declared it a worldwide pandemic.

During those two years, our community was transformed. At every turn, we worked to meet the needs and unique demands of our patients, colleagues, and community. Together, we faced fear, loss, and uncertainty. Many times we were required to build our resilience. Through it all, our enterprise was characterized by unity.

Now, COVID-19 cases are decreasing and remain low. Restrictions are relaxed, and excitement illuminates the future. Across the country, people are ready to get out, travel, attend concerts and plays, enjoy new experiences, and socialize.

And while a new dawn is on the horizon, the pandemic led to several lasting transformations—in both society and health care—that we will carry with us. Technological progression, mRNA vaccines, normalization of mask-wearing to prevent illness—these changes and many more chart the course for our future.

Along with other U.S. health care systems, we capitalized on opportunities to inventory our processes and goals. The pandemic required us to ask deeper questions about health care delivery, population health in our surrounding areas, and resources for health care workers. Nursing and staffing challenges prompted us to make changes in compensation, educational requirements, and resource allocation.

We identified several opportunities for positive change, including the January 1 implementation of a CEO/Dean model, which several of our peer institutions have also adopted. This leadership change will allow us to enhance the synergy across our missions of patient care, research, and education as we move forward. It also means productive changes in our leadership structure as a whole.

We are moving in innovative directions, with a focus on transforming Alabama into a healthier place to work and live. Population and community health, health equity, telehealth, and worker wellness are top priorities.

To that end, the need to eliminate health disparities nationally became obvious. The pandemic prompted leadership, physicians, and health care staff to consider ways to more rapidly address chronic disease and provide better care to those most at risk in our communities. We exit the pandemic with a renewed commitment to provide care to the underserved while bolstering our efforts in preventive care. We must improve socioeconomic barriers to health by improving access to housing, eliminating food deserts, and securing safe spaces to exercise. The Minority Health and Health Disparities Research Center continues to assess the needs of our most vulnerable communities and offers long-term preventive resources through programs like Live HealthSmart Alabama and Alabama CEAL.

In the same way, telehealth models are necessary to the future of health care. It was critical during the pandemic to make sure those who live in rural areas had access to care. In the past three years, telehealth options have mushroomed across the state. Eric Wallace, M.D., UAB Medicine’s medical director of Telehealth, saw his and his teams’ efforts become exceptionally fruitful during the pandemic, allowing Alabamians to access subspecialty care without leaving their communities. Subspecialty options now include nephrology, infectious disease, critical care, and neurology services. And while these milestones are huge, Dr. Wallace says telehealth work has only just begun. With our current models, Alabama is positioned to become a model for health equity.

As we identified ways to care for our communities in unprecedented times, we also explored ways to meet the needs of our staff, faculty, trainees, and students. My leadership team and I are committed to well-being and health, and to building our resilience as an institution.

Since the onset of the pandemic, the UAB Medicine Office of Wellness worked to prevent burnout, increase visibility for wellness programs, and expand the tools available for various cohorts. Under the leadership of David Rogers, M.D., chief wellness officer, our wellness teams are measuring burnout through surveys and have offered tools like the Well-Being Index. These initiatives have multiplied and will continue to flourish.

Additionally, our diversity and inclusion efforts grew significantly. At the intersection of the global pandemic were the unjust killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others. Our diversity and inclusion teams worked hard to hear concerns, facilitate open dialogue, and foster honest conversations.

The UAB Heersink School of Medicine’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion held town halls, developed an anonymous reporting tool, and created faculty associations for underrepresented faculty. Latesha Elopre, M.D., was named assistant dean for Diversity and Inclusion for Medical Education, and Raegan Durant, M.D., MPH, was named associate dean for Diversity and Inclusion.

In the hospital, the UAB Medicine Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion reorganized the Diversity Council, established a new Diversity Council at Cooper Green Mercy Hospital, and is developing a Diversity Council at Callahan Eye Hospital. Employee resource groups were enhanced to offer employees an effective platform to leverage lived experiences. Examples of this include the Inclusive Leadership Speaker Series, the GROW Women’s Leadership Conference, establishment of BELIEVE (Black Employees Leading in Excellence, Vision, and Education), and PRISM (People Respecting Identity and Sexuality in Medicine), among several others. We will continue to gain momentum in these areas.

These are a few of the efforts across our enterprise that will help us move forward, but there were many other lessons learned and goals set. We now know what measures to take if another variant surges. We know what unity in action means, and we can come together by wearing our masks, getting another booster if necessary, and social distancing.

We have worked tirelessly to take care of our people—inside and outside the hospital walls. I was truly overwhelmed by all the times we chose to come together in unity. My hope for our institution is to continue on this path of intentionality and care.

As we consider what post-pandemic life looks like for us individually, as teams, and as a large enterprise moving forward, I hope we all view the future through a lens of empathy, understanding, and hope.