As healthcare organizations emerge from the pandemic, battered but persevering, there is an urgent need for highly effective leadership to help move healthcare into a “new normal.” There is no getting around the fact that healthcare has changed tremendously since the pandemic arrived. The entire healthcare system was thrown into chaos. People, including healthcare workers, were getting ill and dying at unprecedented levels. The systems were overloaded and operating without adequate supplies or staffing, especially in the earlier days of the pandemic. There was no vaccine, and little was known about the disease. The pandemic exposed many flaws in the healthcare delivery system, including workforce vulnerabilities, lack of supply chain preparedness, and especially health disparities.
Healthcare organizations evolved rapidly to protect and serve their patients. Triage became a normal function across healthcare. Telehealth was embraced as a viable alternative, even by organizations who never before considered it a workable solution. Data on COVID-19 prevalence, morbidity and mortality rates, and research and development was made quickly available, even while pending peer review. Innovation emerged in emergency rooms, primary care, dentistry, behavioral health, and all across healthcare. Telehealth and data sharing are standard practices for many organizations.
Now that the pandemic has been deemed over by many national leaders, we are left to figure out how to move forward. How do we as healthcare leaders make this shift to the “new normal” for ourselves and our teams? I have spent much time talking with fellow health professionals and leaders, learning from these trusted colleagues. These lessons can be distilled into the following AUDITS paradigm.
- Ask questions with openness and humility. Learn from your teams, your patients, and other organizational and community stakeholders what is needed to recover and how to best move forward. What lessons have been learned that lead to better services and increased health equity? What do the people on your team need in order to heal? Many on your team are likely grieving losses or dealing with post-traumatic stress.
- Understand your “new normal.” Not all healthcare organizations are fully past the pandemic. Some still serve high numbers of people with COVID or long COVID, and many serve patients vulnerable to COVID. Many organizations are in financial distress and dealing with deepening workforce shortages. Many regions are grappling with severe weather events, adding to the workload and emotional toll. Consider what your pre-pandemic “normal” was and how it differs from where you are now. Take the pulse of your organization, your teams, and the wider community.
- Do strategic planning. Examine the information you have received from various stakeholder groups. Look at your data. Do a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis. Look at the emerging best practices being documented in the literature. Above all, engage your team in this process. Find what works for your organization. If you need support, you can partner with a university like Bay Path!
- Innovate. A lot of innovation happened during the pandemic. Much more can be done to improve healthcare access, quality, safety, agility, and equity. You and your team have undoubtedly shown much resilience and creativity in managing the pandemic years. Keep that spirit of innovation alive!
- Take the time to communicate. Communicate clearly, consistently, and often. Share what the organization is doing to rebound. Be honest and help people understand the organization’s current status and where you hope to go in the future. Listen and be willing to pivot where appropriate. Be sure that you are communicating in a culturally sensitive manner and truly listening. Keep the lines of communication open.
- Self-care matters. It is imperative to take care of yourself before you can take care of others. It may seem as if there is no time for self-care given the volatility of the healthcare environment. It is because of that volatility that self-care is urgent. Short self-care sessions can be profound. Actions as simple as five minutes of mindful breathing or a ten-minute walk can be enough to lower stress.
There is much to do in order to recover from the pandemic, and this recovery will take years. It is a part of the healthcare mission, and this recovery effort is well worth doing. As you continue on your journey, have patience and empathy for yourself and those around you. Much like the mythical phoenix that rises from the ashes, healthcare can emerge from the pandemic wiser, stronger, and better able to meet the needs of our increasingly diverse populations.
Anna Zendell, PhD, MSW is the Program Director of Bay Path University's Master of Science in Healthcare Management degree program.