How CEOs are supporting frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic

Gabriel Perna | May 4, 2020

For most CEOs in the health care world, supporting the frontline caregivers in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic means securing personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators. That is issue number one, but it’s not the only way health care leaders are supporting employees at this crucial time.

CEOs are using whatever resources they can to make the lives of these health care heroes easier, whether it means giving them a hotel room so they can protect their families from their exposure to COVID-19, using technology to track the caregivers’ own health or creating a grocery store for them to shop at.

“I think during this time it’s imperative that we are there for our frontline caregivers. We must listen, support, encourage, and protect them and their families. Everyone has to stop and make this their [top] priority. We have to ask them, ‘Do they have what they need?’ to not just care for COVID patients but for every patient. How [is the caregiver] doing emotionally? Are they taking emotional breaks so they can focus on excellence for each patient they care for?” says Sharn Barbairn, CEO of Medical City Lewisville, a hospital in Lewisville, Texas, in the Dallas suburbs.

Read more: Rural health CEO on the financial struggles of COVID-19

From a café to a grocery store

Hospital cafeterias across the country are trading in their daily soup specials for toilet paper, fresh fruit, milk and eggs. CommonSpirit, the second-largest nonprofit hospital chain in the country, launched several grocery stores within days, says Deisell Martinez, the health system’s leader for food and nutrition services.

“Within a one- or two-day span, I had a number of leaders on the [food and nutrition] team that asked if they could open their order guide, this is what they use for cafeteria food orders. They wanted to get certain things for their staff. It got me thinking and I talked with a bunch of leaders within the system about the idea of opening this up for everyone…through those discussions we came up with the idea of turning [the cafeterias] into grocery stores,” says Martinez.

Things moved quickly from there. Martinez got on the phone with her supply chain partner for food and nutrition services, who coalesced all the vendors together to get on board. After those conversations, each “store” made their orders and opened with anything they found within their inventory that could be repurposed for a soft launch. Five days later, they got all their orders from the vendors and had a fully stocked grocery store.

“Everyone worked at light speed to try it out. Once we had done the initial pilot store and put together a playbook on how it worked, within a month we had over 30 stores,” Martinez says. “Everyone moved really quickly.” She advises health care CEOs to keep an open mind during this pandemic as there are unique ways to solve problems when executives put their heads together.

Julie Hamil, Senior Director of Food & Nutritional Services at Rochester Regional Health, said her executive team had seen on LinkedIn organizations like CommonSpirit pop up these grocery stores and felt inspired. They rearranged the cafeteria and dining room, worked with suppliers on different orders and created the store within a short period of time.

“As we work through this, our leadership wanted to show support to the staff. This is a huge initiative to show our frontline staff that not only are we thinking of them while they’re caring for patients and we appreciate all that they’re doing…but it’s a gesture to say we want to make another part of their lives easier by offering these services. I think it goes a long way and we’ve gotten great feedback from clinicians. Even they’re just getting a dozen eggs, they’re happy to avoid the grocery store” Hamil says.

Compassion crew

Barbairn at Medical City Lewisville was also able to pop up a grocery store in 24 hours. Its food and nutrition team quickly coordinated with vendors to make it happen.

For this organization, however, creating a pop-up grocery store is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to supporting frontline caregivers during COVID-19. Since Medical City Lewisville is part of HCA Healthcare, she says she doesn’t have to focus on securing PPE and ventilators as much as her CEO peers.

“I didn’t have that challenge as I’m within a system that supplied me and my team with everything we need,” Barbairn says. “So then the priority shifts to being able to provide our staff with emotional support.” This has meant offering free hotel rooms to employees who want to practice social distancing and keep their families safe from their COVID exposure. They’ve also offered pandemic and quarantine pay for any employee regardless of where they’ve been exposed to the virus.

Medical City also established a “compassion crew.” This team of employees identifies caregivers who are going above and beyond for COVID-19 patients. She says the chief nursing officer and one of the nursing leaders came up with this idea to have compassion crews go to the unit of the employee, cheer them on with pom poms and megaphones and rally around them. 

“We recognize them as someone who is giving compassion to others and so we want to be there to provide compassion and recognition for them. During this time, it’s very important that we’re there to serve as that emotional support so our caregivers can do what they do best,” Barbairn says.

About the Author

Gabriel Perna, Senior Manager, Digital Content

Gabriel Perna is the Senior Manager of Digital Content at Health Evolution. He brings 10+ years of experience in covering the intersection of health care and business. Previously, he was at Chief Executive, Physicians Practice and Healthcare Informatics. You can reach him via email or on Twitter at @GabrielSPerna