Planning For A New Future

By: Robert J. Corona DO, MBA, CEO, Upstate University Hospital

Before COVID changed everyone’s lives, I had a series of meetings with our hospital officers on the future of our hospital. Anchored by our strategic pillars,the conversation was open and wide ranging.

As we assess our progress, we learned that our pre-COVID ideas were viable and most were able to begin the path to implementation. We also saw how the plans were being reshaped — in real time — both by the current situation and by the ability of staff to be flexible and intuitive to create innovations. The pandemic proved to an accelerant to new ideas, rather than a state that put the brakes on.

I picked four examples that show creating the future can happen while we are still addressing the needs of today.

Telemedicine had been quietly incubated at Upstate for more than 20 years, surged in importance. Our telehealth visits went up by an astonishing 60,000 percent in the first two weeks. The capability had been proven and was now succeeding on a faster timeframe than we originally dreamed. Now, our goals have moved forward to making the experience more seamless via technology, where patients can click into their medical record to have their visit. We can also offer telemedicine visits a first option, where people are limited by work, distance, or physical constraints. What was planned to emerge over several years for telehealth, is being accomplished in several months.

Another area that has accelerated is our use of robotics. Our hospital runs lab tests for patients 24/7 and is currently served by a system of pneumatic tubes that shuttle tests samples quickly. As our campus footprint for testing sites has expanded, the idea of a fleet of drones that could convey samples and urgent tests was proposed. With the pandemic, the needs for tests surged to record levels. The idea of drones to help speed the needs became a reality and we received the first ever waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly over populated areas and deliver medical supplies. Now we are looking at a different type of robotics that will alleviate routine tasks and allow nurses and other caregivers to work at the top of their license.

Bricks and mortar are always part of future plans, but with COVID we made changes in the ideas of where patients could be treated and what could help us be more efficient in our physical space. Telemedicine was part of home care, but we are expanding this idea to further levels, exploring the use of wearables and other at-home diagnostic equipment for care that does not require the stress of hospital admission. In physical space, we also created pop-up clinics and testing sites to see patients quickly and keep them from unnecessary emergency room visits.

A teaching hospital like ours is by nature a high-tech place. All our pre-pandemic ideas have been enhanced by a focus on a high reliability approach to surges. We now have even more advanced software systems in place to pinpoint how patients, people and PPE move through our system. We also worked with Microsofton chat bots that initially handled thousands of inquiries from the community and are now used to quickly pre-screen employees for COVID, and developed new dashboards that provide immediate summaries for our new reality.

The future was not put on hold as we battled what was right before us; it was evolving beside us right along.

Robert J. Corona DO, MBA, is CEO of Upstate University Hospital in Syracuse, NY and is the John B. Henry Professor and Senior Associate Dean of Clinical Affairs in the College of Medicine.  Previous roles at Upstate include Chief Innovation Officer and Associate Dean for Industry and Academic Relations, and the endowed chair for the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. He also served for many years as chief medical officer and vice president of Medical and Scientific Affairs at Welch Allyn Inc.