COVID Sparks Outpouring of Creativity in Hospitals

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By Columbia Mailman School of Public Health

To be sure, the COVID-19 pandemic has been painful for patients and health care providers alike. Yet, throughout the crisis, many hospitals and other health care delivery organizations have been hotbeds of creativity and innovation, serving as a model for management going forward, according to a new article in the journal Health Affairs.

The article is co-authored by Yuna Lee, PhD, assistant professor of health policy and management at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, and Ingrid M. Nembhard, PhD, associate professor of health care management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Traditionally, health care delivery organizations have been slow to generate new and useful ideas. And many promising ideas have stalled amid resistance to change and organizational constraints. COVID upended that culture. 

The authors write: “As organizations, their leaders, and their staff heroically stepped up to care for patients in unprecedented circumstances, creativity overflowed. Creative innovations and implementation strategies related to care delivery, operations and supply chain management, vaccine distribution, and other areas have saved lives, improved delivery and financing of care, and addressed critical challenges related to capacity, equipment, workforce, and vaccine shortages. Health care became an exemplar creative industry quickly.”

The article cites many examples of creativity, including how doctors and nurses creatively re-purposed split-respirators, baby monitors, snorkels, and hairdryer hoods for COVID-19 care; supply chain supervisors contacted laundromats and hardware stores to help maintain personal protective equipment; environmental services managers experimented with sanitizer placement and clever signage; and public health workers turned closed Sears stores into vaccine centers.

Some creativity was done in partnership with industry. For example, the Clorox Alliance provided grants to hospitals to research on safety and cleaning best practices for COVID-19 patient care, and Hewlett Packard donated 3-D printers to create personal protective equipment.

A number of innovations have already become standardized. For example, clear surgical masks to facilitate lip-reading and family inclusion in palliative care virtual discussions. Other innovations like telemedicine that were on a slow track to adoption are now widely available.

Some innovations extended beyond clinics and into vulnerable communities. For example, pop-up events and mobile vans to delivered testing and vaccines to Black, Latinx, and other underrepresented groups. Likewise, community partnerships facilitated home health services through vans, some with the ability to reach older adults with telehealth visits at home.

Going forward, the authors argue that health care organizations should continue to invite and invest in creativity.

Says Lee: “While COVID-19 brought much devastation, it also showed the power of creativity and creative potential of the industry to address serious problems. That lesson is something that should not be lost.”

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