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In February, CommonSpirit posted its first operating gain since merging with Dignity. Then COVID-19 arrived, first making landfall on the West Coast, where the Chicago-based CommonSpirit has numerous hospitals. COVID-19 forced CommonSpirit to rapidly scale digital efforts, partner with other organizations to increase ICU capacity, and shut down elective procedures and decrease inpatient volume (a costly effect of COVID-19).

As the first wave of COVID-19 has started to slow down, protests have sprung up across the country highlighting the racial inequalities in our country. As one of the most prominent black CEOs in health care, Dean has spoken out on the protests, both on Twitter and to his staff.

Health Evolution interviewed Dean on the racial inequalities of COVID-19, leadership lessons he has learned from the pandemic and more. Below are excerpts from Dean’s emailed answers. 

With all that’s happening in regard to the protests, what has the COVID-19 crisis revealed about the social disparities and inequality within the health care system? 

Across the country, the number of African American, Latino, and other people of color affected by COVID-19 is disproportionately large. Those of us in health care have long seen that African Americans, for example, are more likely to have chronic health conditions and receive different care when they need it. These existing comorbidities, coupled with the economic impacts of the pandemic, are leaving many communities without adequate access to health care – just when they need it the most. I encourage other health systems to take this moment to advocate for action and change. We need to collect data that will better inform how we care for our communities and also advocate for smart, well-resourced policies to get our nation safely through this crisis and beyond.      

What have been some valuable leadership lessons you’ve learned in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic? 

Even though we didn’t know how bad this crisis was going to get, we knew early that we had to prepare for a worst-case scenario. Some of our hospitals were among the first in the nation to see COVID-19 cases, so we acted quickly to procure supplies and manage resources at the system level. We adopted a tiered strategy across CommonSpirit that has served us well. Across our system, we established parameters and policies so that facility and division leaders could plan for and adapt their responses based on the specific situation in their region. One of the most important things was determining what data we needed and how we were going to make our decisions. Our system-level analytics informed our actions and enabled our local leaders to do their jobs better. This strategy has affirmed my long-standing approach to leading, which is to hire the best people and trust in their leadership. 

How do you prepare for something like this, which is unprecedented in most of our lifetimes? 

While we have never seen a pandemic like COVID-19, our 150,000 people have planned for, practiced for, and responded to emergencies throughout their careers. Many of us were involved in the response to H1N1, Hurricane Katrina, and other major crises, so the specifics of the COVID-19 virus may be new, but the way to respond is well-established. That made us confident throughout the COVID-19 pandemic that our patients would be as well-cared for as ever. One can never truly anticipate how a virus like this will spread and affect communities over time. Yet, from an operational standpoint, we have seen how our medical professionals’ ongoing training has allowed them to provide the same level of outstanding care during a public health crisis like this one.  

We have learned a tremendous amount during this pandemic and will carry forward lessons learned to meet the health needs of our communities in the next wave and beyond. We now know that we cannot simply rely on a global supply chain for long-term resource needs. Our primary job as leaders is to ensure the safety of our people. We do this by equipping them with the supplies they need. Therefore, we are changing our operations so we have larger stores of resources on hand should a great need once again present itself. We also have joined a consortium that has taken an ownership stake in a safety equipment manufacturer, so we won’t be as dependent on foreign sources or third-parties for our N95 mask supplies. 

From a leadership perspective, what are the biggest challenges you’ve faced during COVID-19? 

There have been many. Probably the one that has concerned me the most was how difficult it was to get the equipment needed to keep our staff safe during the pandemic. It has never been more apparent that health care is local, yet many health systems had become supported by global supply lines that dried up as the virus spread around the world. This was our biggest challenge – as it was for so many other nations and health care organizations. Our truly talented supply chain management team has allowed us to support our communities with PPE throughout the past weeks – whether by finding new sources of supplies or by moving equipment across CommonSpirit to support the areas of the country that were hardest hit, and I am grateful for their work. 

So much of this crisis has seen health care organizations—typically competitors—come together as one to battle the pandemic. What have you been doing in this regard at CommonSpirit? 

Health care is by nature collaborative, and we have seen that in abundance during this pandemic. CommonSpirit’s care sites have coordinated with nearby hospitals throughout this crisis to ensure we meet the health needs of our communities. COVID-19 knows no corporate or geographical boundary. As we prepare for future waves or even future health emergencies, we must share lessons learned and advocate for change as a community of health care providers. This is a rare moment when we can rebuild our health care industry and make it better than before for all people.   

COVID-19 has shown everyone what we have long known – that the social determinants of health have a greater impact on our health status than our genetics do. As leaders of health care organizations, we must ensure all have access to adequate care or we will see many more people lose the fight to this disease. Even more importantly, if we fail to address the underlying social causes of poor health, our communities will never be as strong as they can be. This means better education, housing, nutrition, and so much more for so many people in marginalized and underserved communities.  

You’re on the economic revival taskforce—what will be the important things to keep in mind to lead a quick recovery of the economy? 

As I mentioned before, this is a unique moment in our nation’s history when we have the chance to rebuild our health care system better than it was before. A strong economic recovery must be built on a strong health system and a coordinated response to COVID-19 that gives people the confidence to return to work and other activities. Continuing to expand testing, building out a community-based workforce focused on contact tracing and providing social services, proactively addressing health and economic disparities that the virus has exposed, and providing financial support to people and businesses so they can “recover” safely – all of this will be critical as we seek to get back to a new normal. In the longer-term, delivering on the promise of health means that people must have access to better education, housing, nutrition, and all of the other factors that impact health. We cannot have a strong economy and country without health, and we’ll be focused on expanding programs that address these types of underlying health and social needs for our communities. 

What advice do you have for your fellow CEOs as they lead their organizations through the COVID-19 pandemic? 

This has been a trying few months for everyone, but we are motivated because of our heroic, dedicated people on the front lines and those who are working alongside them. A leader’s number one strategy now and moving forward should be to support the people who carry out the healing mission of their organization.  

My advice to my peers is also to be adaptable. This crisis has laid bare the fact that we cannot do what we have always done. We must be creative in all parts of our businesses. If your normal avenue of procuring supplies isn’t available, look for another. If your supply falls short, develop methods to safely clean and reuse PPE. While we may never be able to anticipate every virus or disease that we may one day face, we can take this moment to recognize where we need more data and intelligence so we can be more nimble and continue to serve our communities.