What COVID-19 Continues to Teach Us about Hospital Culture
Situated in the heart of Westchester County and just outside of New York City, White Plains Hospital was among the first hospitals in New York to face the COVID-19 pandemic during the early days of 2020, back when there were many unknowns.
I will never forget the first case and how quickly the numbers multiplied — seemingly doubling each day early in the pandemic. The overhead rapid response codes blared at a frequency never heard before, and there was an intensity during those first few weeks that was overwhelming.
As we reflect on what has helped those on the front line persevere, we come away with lessons learned about the importance of a strong culture of teamwork, support and encouragement throughout our organization to achieve the best outcomes.
In time, however, we all have learned to adapt. As treatments continue to be developed and we understand more about the virus, the fear of the unknown diminishes and COVID-19 becomes our new normal. Many times, we think the end of this pandemic is here, and then a new variant appears or a new spike occurs.
With each wave comes a new challenge, but our team is prepared and repeatedly steps up to care for our community. Health care workers deservedly have been recognized for their heroic efforts throughout this pandemic, but it’s not over yet.
As we reflect on what has helped those on the front line persevere, we come away with lessons learned about the importance of a strong culture of teamwork, support and encouragement throughout our organization to achieve the best outcomes. Here are a few lessons.
Recognize the Value of the Team
Health care workers are selfless by nature, normalizing things that many people cannot. But they are human too. And what we have seen is that when things are at their worst, it is the bond with colleagues and support from others that help health care professionals get through the tough days. This camaraderie begins by developing a culture of teamwork and trust throughout the organization. Hospital staff will do incredible things if they know that they can count on each other, especially when times are their toughest.
There are many ways to accomplish this. We have found success in our recently reengaged Rewards and Recognition Committee, which focuses on the work of teams, units and departments in achieving goals. These groups are recognized in an award ceremony attended by colleagues and senior leaders and celebrated in an email to staff and on social media. This small gesture builds pride with our teams and importantly helps to reinforce the idea that we rely on each other for our success and by working collaboratively we can achieve our goals.
Reinforce the Positive
During the height of the pandemic, the reality was that while many lives were lost, we saved many more. We wanted to emphasize to our staff how many people have returned home to their loved ones due to their efforts. To help people visualize the impact they were making, we adopted the butterfly as a symbol of hope. Each COVID-19 patient who was discharged in 2020 received a paper butterfly with a number. Hundreds of butterflies lined the main hallway that staff walk through each day, serving as a powerful reminder of their dedication and effort. Staff rallied behind the idea, taking videos of patients holding their butterflies as they left the hospital and taking a moment to celebrate the win.
We now have installed a butterfly garden outside the hospital with plants that attract butterflies and a large stone with a plaque dedicated to the efforts of our teams. It acts as a quiet place for our staff to sit and reflect on those lives they have saved as well as those they could not.
In addition, to keep morale high — especially during the first year of the pandemic — hospital leadership sent out nearly 100 emails to staff, including a campaign from the CEO called “Everyday Heroes,” recognizing departments across the hospital for their unique contributions to their efforts at saving lives. Each Everyday Heroes story and photo was posted on social media.
Never Underestimate the Power of Community
Throughout the pandemic, the community has been eager to do what they can to support our efforts, especially early on when many were asked to shelter in place. Local celebrities have sent inspirational messages, and a parade of cars came each week for a Thursday night shout-out to cheer on our heroes. Hundreds of children have sent us heartwarming cards and notes that lined another busy hallway for staff to see. A volunteer group even spearheaded an initiative selling 1,300 signs with motivational messages — like “Stay Strong” and “We Love You” — which lined lawns across the county so our employees could see them as they drove to and from work. That groundswell of support reinforced what we had known, but the lesson was amplified during the pandemic: While it is our role to care for our community, they want to care for us as well.
Our community organizations are trusted resources throughout Westchester County and valuable partners in helping to communicate, influence and inspire others to act. These partners have been essential in working with us during this time of crisis to bring key constituents together and provide us with critical insights about the needs of our community members. For example, knowing that a certain subset of community members did not have access to transportation to get a COVID-19 vaccine spurred us to create pop-up vaccination sites in areas of need. In addition, learning about vaccination hesitancy from various community groups resulted in a targeted educational effort from our physicians, in partnership with community leaders, to listen to concerns and relay important factual information.
As health equity remains a priority, partnering with those trusted community groups is essential to developing impactful programs to identify real needs and continue to optimize the health of our communities.
Dawn French is senior vice president for marketing and community outreach at White Plains (N.Y.) Hospital. White Plains Hospital is featured in the AHA Living Learning Network’s second pandemic reflection book, The Pandemic: Responding with Resilience and Service to Community.