Orlando Health Helps Community Become ‘Business Ready’
At this time last year, medical professionals around the world were watching news reports from China about a coronavirus that looked serious. It was on the distant radar at Orlando Health and its facilities all over Central Florida. Then the first local cases showed up.
“At first I was concerned, but I don’t think anybody sensed the scope we were going to be facing. I had no idea,” said Dr. Donald Plumley, a pediatric surgeon with Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children for 26 years. Plumley also serves as the hospital’s trauma medical director and its chief quality officer.
“Once it started, I was like everyone else who said, ‘This is going to be a few months.’ … By mid-March, we were on board and knew this was serious and we were going to have to make some tough decisions. Do we keep working, do we stop working? Difficult decisions that had far-reaching consequences, not only for our own practices but for our patients and their livelihood.”
What happened next was a testament to the hospital system’s deep ties to the community. CEO David Strong and the senior leadership team appointed committees to specialize in different aspects of handling the pandemic. They focused internally on protecting and mobilizing the hospital’s team so everyone could work safely. And then they looked externally.
Plumley was tapped to co-lead a committee that would help local businesses bring their employees back to work safely. His partner on the project was Thibaut van Marcke, president of Orlando Health Dr. P. Phillips Hospital in the Sand Lake area and senior vice president of the hospital system’s southeast region. The team developed Business Ready, a program that has since been adapted into a similar plan for schools.
The initiative represented good foresight by the hospital’s senior leadership team, Plumley said. “We had been in the pandemic about six weeks when this came about. We realized we had gotten through the worst of our first wave and had not only treated hundreds of patients but had kept 20,000 team members safe. We also kept over 100,000 visitors safe. We thought the practices we had developed internally on the fly, with no help from anybody, should be passed on to businesses in our community.”
He applauds the way Orlando Health tends to pair administrators with doctors on special projects. Plumley and van Marcke complemented each other. “There’s a mutual respect,” Plumley said. “I bring something to the table an administrator can’t. I’m a surgeon, so I’m not well-versed in Rotary Clubs or chambers of commerce, but I bring health knowledge.”
Sharing Lessons Learned
Van Marcke remembers the CEO giving him and Plumley a directive: “We need to figure out a way to help our local economy and our local businesses come back. Can you guys take this on and figure out a way we might be able to do that?”
“With our community being so dependent on tourism and our local economy being supported by folks visiting us, we realized we had an opportunity — if not a responsibility, really — to be a resource for the business community to help them come back,” said van Marcke, whose hospital near the theme park areas often treats tourists and convention visitors. “We realized we couldn’t be in a holding pattern for months on end. We had learned there was a safe way to take care of our patients and of our business, and we felt strongly we could take our learnings and share them with small, midsize and large businesses.”
Handling an infectious disease was not a new experience for Orlando Health. In May 2014, the hospital treated one of only two patients in the U.S. who tested positive for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, known as MERS.
While the hospital was on alert for signs of COVID-19, the region held its breath when the National Basketball Association stopped all games, including the Orlando Magic’s activities at the Amway Center. Within days, first Walt Disney World and then the other theme parks announced they were closing. Local schools shifted to remote learning, and all public gatherings were put on hold. Then Orlando Health confirmed its first case.
“March 15, on a Sunday, was the first confirmed case we had here at Dr. Phillips Hospital, and that’s really when things escalated very rapidly,” van Marcke said. “We experienced what everyone else experienced, which was a rapid pace of learning about this new disease. Obviously, there was a lot of fear among health care professionals. We deal with infectious diseases, but this was new.”
The first step was to make sure the employees and physicians were educated about the virus and had what they needed to keep themselves safe, including personal protective equipment or PPE — all while handling an increasing workload of patients worried they were experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.
“Those last couple weeks in March were pretty intense, pretty fast-paced,” van Marcke said. “While the rest of the community was shutting down and retreating home, we were still showing up to work every day. We’ve used the term ‘health care heroes’ a lot in the past several months. I consider our doctors, nurses, physical therapists, radiology techs, housekeepers and everybody along the way to be heroes. They never stopped showing up to work.”
In those early days, one thing kept Plumley awake at night: the accuracy and timing of the information the medical professionals were sharing with their teams and the public. “I look back at some of our first recommendations, and they’re completely different now,” he said. “Our role was to help evolve this and to stay current. Everybody was learning this on the fly, from the government to health care workers to industry.”
He had to be the bad guy and tell people even in his own family that they couldn’t have a wedding shower or even a wedding. They couldn’t fly in family members for a big dinner with Grandma, who might be more susceptible to COVID-19 because of her age or a compromised immune system. That diligence extended to the business community, too.
“We had to make some hard decisions,” Plumley said. “There would be a big event, like maybe a chamber mixer, and we said, ‘You really shouldn’t do this.’ Or you would meet with a business venue and they wanted to start back up with 50% occupancy, and we said to maybe do 25%. The business owners were very respectful. They were eager for the information.”
It became apparent early on there were some basic tenets everyone had to follow to keep safe: Wear a mask, self-distance and wash your hands.
“We’ll look back, and I’m sure this will be studied in business schools and health care schools for decades because it’s been unprecedented. It has shown the resiliency we have as citizens and as Americans.”
A Plan for Businesses
Within 24 hours of getting their assignment from the CEO, Plumley and van Marcke assembled an in-house task force that included colleagues in clinical fields but also in marketing, branding and communication. They worked closely with Andy Gardiner, Orlando Health’s senior vice president of external affairs and community relations. It was important to present information that was sometimes complicated and clinical in a way the general public would understand.
“Using our community relationships, we had a number of calls over the next couple days with contacts in the community, with business, industry and education, to try to understand what they were thinking through,” van Marcke said. Team members developed a series of educational videos in multiple languages. They made themselves available to speak to different groups virtually, including chambers of commerce and company leadership teams. They launched an app-based virtual visit platform that allowed people to connect with a physician or a nurse practitioner.
“We branded the initiative Business Ready, and around May 1 we rolled out our website,” van Marcke said. “We described it as a toolkit or a resource guide. Whether you were a business that had five employees or 500, it could be useful to you.”
Most businesses have adapted by now, he said, but some have ongoing needs as they continue to reopen operations. For instance, in a partnership with Visit Orlando and the Orange County Convention Center, Orlando Health reviews outlines from event planners and recommends how to adjust meetings to be more pandemic-safe.
“We make our virtual visit platform available for convention-goers, and we have the ability to embed a link to our app in their convention app,” van Marcke said. “For people who are traveling, there’s a sense of, ‘Hey, if I go to Orlando, there’s a local health system that’s available to me and there are pathways should I feel I’m getting ill or if I have questions.’”
Leadership in Crisis
The hospital’s senior leadership gave Business Ready team members access to any resources they needed, van Marcke said. “We were told this was important to us not only for the health of the population we serve, but for the economy of our entire area.”
It was important that an open, collaborative style of leadership come from the top and continue throughout the different branches of the hospital’s operations, he said.
“As leaders, our job is to be a stabilizing force, to guide our teams through difficult times,” van Marcke said. “I’m certainly not suggesting that fear doesn’t factor in at times, but that can’t be what’s driving our decision-making.”
One of the most gratifying aspects of the Business Ready program has been helping other local leaders get their teams through a frightening and stressful time, Plumley said. “We were able to help a lot of big entities, but for me the best part was we were helping a lot of small businesses. Big corporations have the resources to figure out the best way to do this, but a laundromat, a barber shop, a restaurant, those kinds of companies have no resources.”
The Business Ready website, pamphlets, signage, coaching and other tools also helped nonprofits, colleges, schools and other entities, Plumley said. “They would send us their protocols, and we would have a physician read through them and say, ‘This makes sense’ or ‘This doesn’t follow CDC guidelines.’”
One unexpected bonus: Battling COVID-19 together has helped strengthen the hospital’s internal team, he said.
“Orlando Health puts out a COVID-19 update every single day to all 20,000-some team members,” Plumley said. “It’s super-transparent, and it’s about how we’re doing financially, how we’re doing with PPE, how many patients are ‘in hospital,’ how many are on ventilators and how many have died. It’s all common knowledge throughout the organization. Every nurse, every cafeteria worker, everyone gets a copy. There are no secrets. So there’s been this camaraderie of, ‘We’re in this together and we’re going to get through this together.’”
Photography by Julie Fletcher
As seen in January | February edition of i4 Business Magazine