COVID-19 turned everything upside down. What has Penn Medicine’s innovation team learned?

To many in health care, the COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis from which to find the next great learning opportunity.

It’s from the most harrowing crises that the greatest lessons are often learned.

Plagues in the Middle Ages prompted the first organized instances of quarantining to control international disease spread. A yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia following the American Revolution prompted a law that first established hospitals in port cities to keep sailors fit for service, which then evolved into the nation’s Public Health Service. And amid the magnitude of catastrophic head and facial injuries among combatants in the First World War, the field of plastic surgery emerged to restore form and function to the wounded’s bodies.

Gloved hands holding a smart phone with a cord plugged in that is attached to lab equipment.
Image: Penn Medicine News

All of those responses arose directly from emergencies affecting certain times but have had immeasurable impacts in the years forward. To many in health care—including those in Penn Medicine’s Center for Health Care Innovation—the COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis from which to find the next great learning opportunity.

Charged with fixing some of the biggest problems in health care, members of the Center for Health Care Innovation have been intimately involved in Penn Medicine’s efforts to combat COVID-19. Their work has ranged from developing drive-through testing sites and revamped emergency room entrances to address suddenly heightened infection control at the start of the pandemic to facilitating equitable vaccine roll-out efforts in communities that have been historically underserved by health care. All the while, Innovation team members have facilitated programs that took advantage of the new popularity of telemedicine. These programs included COVID Watch and the COVID Accelerated Care Pathway, which helped free up hospital capacity and buy time amid surges.

As we transition back to a hybrid in-person model of work, for people who are moderately unwell—like with a cold—but still want to get some things done, there’s now a strongly established norm for them to work from home,” says Kelly Zentgraf, senior project manager at Penn’s Nudge Unit. “COVID has highlighted the importance of halting disease transmissibility, and the University’s accommodations to work from home—through measures like increased bandwidth to connect to a remote desktop and the provision of supplies like second monitors—has made doing so much easier.”

Taking care of mental health is now on par with physical health. “We have known for a long time now that there is a global mental health crisis. Increases in suicide deaths and drug overdose deaths, have been occurring for some time—particularly in the United States—and we have been seeing especially troubling trends for young people,” says Rinad Beidas, professor of psychiatry and medical ethics and health policy, director of the Nudge Unit and founding director of the Penn Implementation Science Center. “The pandemic has shone a light on how much we have underinvested in mental health care delivery.”

This story is by Frank Otto. Read more at Penn Medicine News.