Penn State Health: The Pandemic as a Unifying Force

Penn State Health is a multi-hospital academic health system serving patients and communities across 29 counties in central Pennsylvania. While the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly been disruptive in many respects, a silver lining for the Health System has been the acceleration of its integration.

Prior to COVID-19, Penn State Health was operating as a loosely held confederacy of puzzle pieces, says Matthew Silvis, M.D., vice chair of clinical operations in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. “During COVID-19, healthcare leaders from across our healthcare system came together in a unified fashion focused on a unified care delivery model sensitive to local communities, but ensuring similar care independent of location within Penn State Health.”

WittKieffer Senior Associate Vinny Gossain, a member of the firm’s Physician Integration and Leadership Practice, recently spoke with Dr. Silvis about changes to Penn State Health and to the healthcare industry overall during the global pandemic. What follows is their conversation.

Gossain: How has Penn State Health responded to care delivery amid COVID-19?

Silvis: The leadership principles during the COVID pandemic have been centered on the patient experience. Patients of Penn State Health want the same experience regardless of the site of care they utilize, whether care is delivered in primary care, specialty care or virtually. Patients expect clinical operations to support their healthcare needs. Through this lens, we’ve focused our energy on learning best practices across Penn State Health and then sharing those best practices with clinics and providers broadly to support a similar patient experience regardless of location.

This health system transformation has relied on leaders to be adaptable, active listeners, and flexible to new ideas. It has highlighted the need for service lines to think about their care delivery independent of whether they practice within the community or academic divisions.

Gossain: What have you learned from your community provider counterparts during the pandemic?

Silvis: The community physicians have been leaders in patient-centered care and community engagement. Individual community practice providers with strong IT backgrounds have facilitated the creation of policy and protocols to more effectively use telehealth during this time. The use of technology has been vital for patient care during the pandemic and has helped keep practices open during this challenging time. The ability to care for patients virtually was something Penn State Health did not have full capability to operationalize until this experience.

Gossain: As a physician leader, what skills have you utilized that helped you be successful?

Silvis: The ability to take one day at a time and function under intense pressure is the first thing that comes to mind.

And communication has been imperative. The team is dispersed across the Health System and throughout geographical sites. Concise, direct communication has been vital – honest, proactive communication and understanding the human element of what is happening. People are affected and need timely answers even when central direction is constantly changing. Remain goal-oriented, but adapt to the situation or challenge of the day.

Gossain: Are there things you’ve accomplished that wouldn’t have been possible without the crisis?

Silvis: During this time our teams acted expeditiously. Providers have had a greater sense of urgency. Previous barriers between community and academic providers were obsolete when considering the pace of change required to respond to the pandemic. Penn State Health through its guidance brought leaders together to solve problems from the academic and community divisions. We celebrated successes from the community and from academic practices to highlight teamwork. Both groups developed best practices.

Gossain: Ultimately, how will COVID-19 change healthcare delivery?

Silvis: We’re seeing changes already that will stay with us after the pandemic. First, telehealth is transformative. For example, as a sports medicine physician, we can now navigate a concussion consult from anywhere in the state. The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of telehealth and innovation surrounding its use.

A patient-centered focus on infection control and prevention has been elevated. The measures implemented in hospitals and outpatient clinics to reduce the risk of COVID will undoubtedly help reduce other infections such as influenza.

How patients are scheduled, their flow through our various clinics and hospitals, follow-up care, etc. all has been reworked and arguably in a more patient-centered manner. Providers are now using our EMR more effectively and that will help reduce cost and accelerate more practice transformation.  

There have been so many recent changes. Hopefully, the ability to act with urgency and with the patient as the focus is here to stay for Penn State Health and for all healthcare systems nationwide.

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