Dr Cacchione: Mantra at Ascension During COVID-19 Was, Take Care of the Patients, Take Care of the Staff

CHE Staff

Joseph Cacchione, MD, FACC, executive vice president of Clinical & Network Services at Ascension, discusses how his company was able to provide care and support to patients and staff during the pandemic.

During last month’s meeting of the American College of Cardiology (ACC) Scientific Session, results of a survey showed a large number of cardiologists feel burnt out from treating patients during COVID-19, and about 41% cite shortcoming of their health system—things like failing to make sure staff had adequate food and housing if they had to stay away from their families, while at the same time cutting pay. In the final installment from a recent with interview with Chief Healthcare Executive™ Ascension’s Joseph Cacchione, MD, FACC, executive vice president, Clinical & Network Services, said the multi-state health system’s CEO, Joseph Impicciche, JD, MHA, gave a different directive as the pandemic began. Cacchione—who is a fellow of the ACC—said his marching orders were to take care of the team.

CHE: Health systems during the pandemic are dealing with the effects that it has had on their staff. And do you have both short- and long-term strategies to support your staff in the months and years ahead?

Cacchione: At the beginning of the pandemic, our CEO told [Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer], Craig Cordola and me, there's two things I want you to just always frame everything: take care of the patients and take care of our associates. And that was a pretty solid, direct directive that always made us feel like we always knew where to land things.

So, number one, we didn't lay off a worker during the pandemic. We paid everybody, including our physicians, our nurses—everybody was paid. We had no layoffs, and we supported people through the pandemic. So that was a big, a big thing for us.

And then we also created resources for our employees. We had virtual counselling, spiritual care—all able to be accessed virtually. For a lot of our frontline workers who did not want to potentially take COVID back into the home, we paid for hotel stays. We had a meal program where people could go in and pull meals, prepaid, premade meals, and bring them home with them to their families.

It was a multi-channel approach to supporting the associates during this. Number one, keeping them all; number two, continuing to pay them at the same level; number three, really attending to their own personal needs and mental health needs. And so many of our employees were affected either directly by the COVID or indirectly, so we supported them at a time when they needed that.

We've seen a very dramatic increase in number of behavioral health visits for our employee population. We've seen a higher suicide rate. And these are were just a mirror of the national landscape, in that mental health visits, opioid addiction, and suicide rates are up at an all-time high in this country. And I think it's because of COVID. …

I'm a cardiologist and we deal with life and death situations; what healthcare workers have always been able to do is compartmentalize—whatever happened at work, they left it at work, or they went home and they were able to compartmentalize it in their brain. What happened with COVID is they weren't able to compartmentalize, because then when that went up, when they went home, they still had the scare of COVID. They still had this fear of COVID for their own family that I might bring COVID into the house. And so, they were not able to compartmentalize like they normally do to deal with the stress of your life and death situations.

And our frontline workers, I have to say that the frontline healthcare workers just performed admirably at a time of under such stress and personal sacrifice, that I think health care that will forever be heralded in the in health care lore of just how healthcare has responded to this. I stopped short of the word, “hero.” And I think they've just they've done their job at the highest level. And I would say many of them are heroes the way they behaved. But I for me, I've worked virtually, so I sometimes I felt like I was abandoning our teams, but our teams just performed at a level that I was so proud of to be part of Ascension and part of healthcare.