Viewpoint: Is there a patient in the house? Hospitals eager to get back to normal

Last updated on May 7th, 2020 at 05:25 pm

This may sound counter-intuitive given the state is still dealing with the largest pandemic in a century, but Wisconsin hospitals aren’t all that busy.

In fact, they’re ready to schedule that hip replacement you put off a few months ago – or to talk about the wrenched back you got raking your yard while staying “safer at home.”

Maybe it’s because Wisconsin hospitals and health systems started from a relative position of strength compared to other states, or that prompt isolation efforts paid off, but the head of the Wisconsin Hospital Association thinks the worst has been averted.

At least, for now, based on available data and feedback from underused hospitals.

“COVID-19 continues not to stress the health care system in any really urgent way,” said WHA President Eric Borgerding, even as expanded testing shows more people positive for the virus.

A more important factor, he said, is how many of those virus-positive people wind up in the hospital.

“The state’s COVID-related hospitalization rate has been trending downward,” Borgerding said in a Thursday interview. “It fell quite a bit after the initial surge, and it’s been relatively flat for about two weeks. Over the last few days it’s been dropping. That’s all good news.”

While the WHA and its 130 or so member hospitals must meet recently announced “gating” measures established by the state Department of Health Services and the state Emergency Operations Center, Borgerding said he’s confident the system will be able to do so.

“When the new data are posted, I feel pretty good they will be green,” he said.

Two key metrics are being able to operate under established crisis conditions and concentrated testing of staff who deal with patients. Borgerding said Wisconsin hospitals have stayed under the “crisis” bar and should have little trouble testing patient-facing staff. A bigger problem, he said, is making sure those health systems have enough personal protective equipment.

Like many other businesses and institutions in Wisconsin and across the nation, hospitals and health systems have taken financial hits as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. Some might ask, “How can that be if the federal government is shipping billions of dollars to hospitals to combat the outbreak?”

It’s because those hospitals were ordered to stop doing just about everything else by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, not state government, and the COVID-19 reimbursement dollars don’t cover all related costs.

With other services and procedures delayed or still not available for CMS reimbursement, Wisconsin health systems have forfeited about $2 billion in revenue over the past two months. Many have laid off staff that can’t be used to carry out non-urgent or elective procedures.

It would be understandable if hospitals were swamped, unsafe and unable to take on delayed procedures or services, but they’re not.

“There’s a distressing byproduct to the ‘COVID journey,’ which is the impact of the perception that hospitals are overrun, unsafe or infected,” Borgerding said. “Hospitals and clinics are safe. People can feel confident in that, and we hope that message gets out.”

Borgerding said hospitals generally welcome independent metrics measuring quality and safety, because they will help “dispel that inaccurate perception of hospitals and clinics not safe at this time.”

Empty surgical suites and clinics is not just a financial challenge for hospitals and health systems, but a health care issue.

When medical procedures that were otherwise deemed serious are delayed for too long, other health issues surface. Hip replacements, bad backs and much more can only wait so long before people begin to suffer from ailments that have nothing to do with COVID-19.

“Hospitals have never stopped treating emergency, urgent and critical care needs,” Borgerding said. “Patients should not be hesitant now to pursue preventive and diagnostic care, either, especially to maintain their health.”

Health care workers across Wisconsin and beyond have worked wonders during the COVID-19 surge. It’s time to let them get back to work helping people with other health issues, as well.

Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council.

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