NYC public hospitals rose to the demands of the COVID-19 crisis


Organizing the crisis response

As chief value officer for NYCH+H, Hyung (Harry) Cho, MD, FACP, SFHM, typically focuses on issues of patient safety and overuse of medical treatments in the health system. But in the COVID-19 crisis, he found himself at the forefront of organizing its response. “We tried to provide support centrally and to standardize practice in how we test and treat,” he said.

Dr. Harry Cho, chief value officer for NYC Health + Hospitals

Dr. Harry Cho

“We were truly at the epicenter of the pandemic,” Dr. Cho said. “All of our hospitals had different experiences, and unique responses. But the system worked well.” Patients were transferred from the more overtaxed hospitals to Bellevue and other NYCH+H hospitals with spare beds. An emergency medical response structure was put in place, and every morning the system’s Tiger Team, with multidisciplinary personnel from administration, operations, logistics, and medical/technical specialists, would gather virtually to discuss needs across the system.

“It was a very open atmosphere and we asked people to report what was happening on the ground,” Dr. Cho said. “We started rapidly reviewing batches of 20 patients at a time for transfer in order to alleviate pressure in the most overtaxed ERs.”

NYCH+H also had to work through concerns about PPE, just like other U.S. hospitals. Treatment guidelines were changing by the day. Medical concerns were relayed at a rapid pace. Another priority was trying to limit unnecessary exposure for staff through a recommendation that only one clinician from a team would go into the room of an infected patient, unless another was absolutely needed.

The reality of public health

NYCH+H was created by the New York State Legislature in 1969 and rebranded in 2015. It includes a low- to no-cost health insurance plan called MetroPlus, along with outpatient centers, comprehensive case management, and social supports in the home.

“What people know about public health systems is that we typically are underresourced. That’s just the reality of public health,” Dr. Cho said. “We help the community, the underserved. The people who truly needed our help are also the ones who have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. And that is where we really shine as a system.”

Dr. Cho lauded the performance of the health system’s frontline staff. “Watching them come together during the entire pandemic, and do their best every day, was truly inspiring,” he said. “But when they got to the peak, it really took an emotional toll on them.”

NYCH+H’s in-house staff support program, called Helping Healers Heal, was mobilized with specially trained teams at each of its 11 hospitals to provide peer-to-peer support, mental health expertise, and team-debriefing sessions to staff members following traumatic events. Support is provided both over the phone and in person on the floors, Dr. Cho said. “During the surge, everything was happening so quickly, there was no time to take a pause. Now, as we are able to catch our breath, that’s when they most need support.”

The hospitalists at NYCH+H hospitals intended to have goals-of-care conversations with all patients, but everyone was very busy – so having these conversations became harder and harder, Dr. Cho said. Recognizing limited staffing for the quadrupling of patients who needed palliative care at NYCH+H hospitals, he asked the medicine chairs about their palliative care needs and then used social media outreach to ask for help. The message went viral, attracting 413 volunteers from across the country. Sixty-seven telepalliative volunteers were put to work doing goals-of-care conversations remotely with inpatients and their families.1

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