Promoting holistic physician well-being is a pillar of Curi’s mission to help physicians in medicine, business, and life—and it has assumed even greater importance as healthcare workers face the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic. To better understand physicians’ unique challenges and what feeds their resiliency in this moment, we sat down with neuroradiologist Dr. John Hiehle, President of the Medical Staff and Chair of the Department of Radiology at Crozer-Chester Medical Center in Pennsylvania.
In his role at Crozer, Dr. Hiehle is clinically active in interventional radiology and neuroradiology and performs administrative duties to ensure both the department and medical staff continue to run smoothly. While speaking with us, Dr. Hiehle discussed the ways that the COVID pandemic has created new challenges both personally and professionally and how he and his team have worked to successfully navigate this new word.
As a physician and as an administrator, what have been your experiences dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic?
COVID clearly has had a major impact on our practice, but I think things have changed a bit since the early days. Back in March, April, and even May 2020, we were simply overwhelmed with the sheer volume of patients, and there was tremendous anxiety surrounding how to do our jobs without putting ourselves at risk. It was very difficult to practice medicine, yet we were lucky in the fact that very few of our providers tested positive and none of our x-ray or CT techs tested positive—a testament to our dedication and ability to continue providing care while remaining safe.
Since that time, our number of COVID patients has decreased significantly. During our peak, we had up to 190 COVID patients in our care across our 3 hospitals, and our Covid census has recently been below 20. There are still many challenges that we face when learning how to properly care for COVID patients and keep them isolated, but we continue to meet those head-on while making sure that our staff and all of our patients are protected.
How did this shift affect the medical staff?
A few radiologists in our practice were on a short track to retirement, and for the most part, those providers fully retired. We also allowed many staff members to work from home early on to minimize exposure in the hospital and closed many outpatient services temporarily. As we gained experience and insight, and as our volumes recovered, we have resumed outpatient services and largely returned to practicing on site in our hospitals and outpatient centers, feeling confident that we can perform our work safely and effectively. As far as keeping patients safe, we keep our outpatient centers COVID-free by screening patients and have our COVID positive or suspected patients treated in specific facility geared to handle those patients.
How is your practice ensuring that physicians and medical staff don’t become overwhelmed?
Our practice leaders have worked hard to make sure that all staff feels cared for, heard, and safe during this time. Early on, our health system secured hotel space and arranged lodging for staff who wanted to quarantine while treating patients, and our psychiatry department provided counseling for any staff in need, making these services readily available to everyone. A lot of surrounding restaurants were also helpful in providing meals for our staff since the cafeteria was closed. Our CEO is very charismatic, and he would regularly reach out to the team in an attempt to improve the general mood and reinforce that the health system is doing everything possible to make sure they remain safe.
Has COVID affected your ability to establish connections with patients?
I do think it’s been a bit tougher to connect with patients when you lose a significant portion of facial cues during conversation due to masks. In my clinical practice, I’ve found it’s best to operate under the assumption that everyone is Covid positive out of an abundance of caution, but that certainly limits your ability to connect. You’re trying to limit interaction and distance yourself, and that’s a really tough part about practicing medicine during this time.
I also remember the anxiety surrounding helping COVID patients very early on in the pandemic. Simply going into the ICU or into the room where there are COVID-positive patients stirred up anxiety among all staff and providers which made the experience particularly difficult.
What is a “silver lining” experience you’ve observed during this time?
I live in Swarthmore with my wife, and we have three children: My son works in NYC at Google, my eldest daughter is a Junior at Northeastern University, and my youngest daughter graduated high school in 2020. Having adult children, you don’t always get to see them as often as you’d like. However, in the face of the pandemic, both of my daughters’ schools closed, forcing them to stay home, and we convinced my son to leave the city and come stay with us when New York was experiencing a major surge in cases. It was a lot of fun to have all three of our children home again. Since no one could go out and socialize, we had no other choice than to stay in and spend time together, and I think our kids spent more time socializing with each other than any of them had in their whole lives. It was really fun and special.
Furthermore, in a way, I think it’s has been somewhat of a privilege to be an important player in this historic event as a frontline healthcare worker. This is unlike any experience in recent history, and we will likely never see anything like it again in our lifetimes.
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