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David Reich of Mount Sinai Hospital on adapting in a crisis | Lessons for Leaders


In this new series, we’re spotlighting insights from leaders in the world of healthcare. David Reich, president of Mount Sinai Hospital and Mount Sinai Queens, shares lessons from leading the New York hospitals in the pandemic.

After the past three years, David Reich knows a great deal about leading in a crisis.

Reich is the president of Mount Sinai Hospital and Mount Sinai Queens. New York City became ground zero of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.

As the pandemic began, Mount Sinai set up a field hospital in Central Park, and Mount Sinai was flooded with patients infected by a new and terrifying virus. For three years, Reich has led the hospitals in the pandemic, navigating staffing shortages and burnout and a host of other challenges.

In an interview with Chief Healthcare Executive® about leading in the COVID-19 pandemic, Reich shares the importance of the need to adapt to emerging challenges.

“I think the greatest lesson from the pandemic is, get used to the fact that you can't get used to anything,” Reich says. “You have to understand the situation’s always changing. And you have to empower your amazing team to do amazing things.”

(See part of our conversation with David Reich in this video. The story continues below.)

In the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, “The challenges were completely different every two weeks,” Reich says.

For the first two weeks, Mount Sinai worked desperately to get personal protective equipment for healthcare workers and establish testing in the laboratory to diagnose patients with COVID-19.

“And then a few weeks after that, it was completely different,” Reich says.

When it became apparent Mount Sinai would need to set up a field hospital in Central Park to handle the massive influx of patients, the hospital faced controversy in the crisis. Mount Sinai welcomed help from Samaritan’s Purse, a conservative evangelical organization that delivered the tents. Some bristled at Mount Sinai working with Samaritan’s Purse.

Within days of talking to Samaritan’s Purse, trucks were driving into New York to help set up the tents in Central Park. New York City’s government provided police and firefighters to help, along with logistical assistance, including connecting to electricity.

“It was a really remarkable effort,” Reich says. “And at the same time, highly controversial, because we were working with a group that is politically very far to the right of where most people are in New York State. And that engendered a lot of concern and created additional challenges for us in managing the message.”

Reich says he even received a call from his own rabbi, the leader of a very liberal congregation, about working with Samaritan’s Purse.

“I said, ‘It's really very simple. Because in my raising in the Jewish tradition, we were taught that there that you can break almost any law to save a life.’”

“And so it was very clear that this was about saving lives,” Reich says. “And people on the other end of the political spectrum were not sending us tent cities to help us care for our patients. It was these people. So they were there. And they were literally doing, in their view, God's work, and in our view, the incredibly important work of extending the resources of our health system at a time when we were completely overextended.”

As the mass wave of hospitalizations subsided in June 2020, Mount Sinai faced another challenge in trying to move out of crisis mode.

“How do you get back to normal operations, especially when everyone is so very upset, is so very burned down,” Reich says. Many grappled with post-traumatic stress disorder and felt out of sorts.

Mount Sinai has focused on sustaining the well-being of the workforce, including the creation of the Center for Stress, Resilience and Personal Growth. “We find ourselves in a situation where staff wellness is something that has risen almost to the top of the list of things that we have to be concerned with,” Reich says.

“You have to really focus on your staff, because you can't have good patient experience, unless you have good staff experience,” he adds.

In moving forward and making changes, Reich says it’s important to understand human nature. Some people will resist new approaches and it can take time to get people to come around.

“Anything that I've done in my career, certainly, as a hospital leader, there's almost always someone who's opposed to it, for some reason,” he says.

As new challenges arise, Reich says the key is understanding “our true north.”

Even when there’s opposition or disagreement, “We have to hold to our truest principles and do what's best for patients,” Reich says.

Healthcare leaders need to understand that “the challenges constantly change,” Reich says.

“What you think is the problem today, and you think it might still be the problem a year or two years from now, you may be wrong about that,” Reich says. “So the level of adaptability and flexibility that we need as leaders needs to be even more finely honed, as we go forward.”

(If you’d like to submit your lessons in leadership in healthcare, great advice you’ve received, or insights you wish you had earlier, submit an idea for our “Lessons for Leaders” series. Email Ron Southwick, senior editor of Chief Healthcare Executive: [email protected])

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