Bill Spooner Manages COVID-19 Challenges During Temporary CIO Stint

Spooner, an Advisor for Huntzinger, had to help Charleston Area Medical Center adapt to a new normal.

Bill Spooner, a Huntzinger Advisor for The Huntzinger Management Group, has had a long-established career leading IT teams at healthcare organizations. While all those life lessons in previous roles provided a solid backdrop for Spooner, the many challenges he faced were nothing like his temporary role at Charleston Area Medical Center (CAMC) where he had to help the organization adapt, on the fly, to a new normal of care delivery in the midst of a pandemic.

Spooner started the interim role on January 1 at the medical center in West Virginia, which was within driving distance of his home (during the week, he stayed at a nearby hotel). As part of the agreement to fill in there, Spooner was able to take a family vacation to England in early March. He arrived back on March 13, when the full force of the COVID-19 crisis was becoming widely known. Life changed and Spooner adapted.

Soon after his return, “I was a remote worker for about two weeks because of the quarantine. We had sent all the workers home around March 12,” Spooner said. But eventually, he returned to work on site at the facility. “I felt I needed to be there; when I called someone, and they realized that I was somewhere on the premises, that was a positive from their perspective.” During his assignment at CAMC, Spooner and about a half dozen others worked in an office that typically held about 100 staff, which enabled them to maintain social distancing. He typically worked on site four days a week.

One of the largest initial challenges was shifting to support the remote workforce, which totaled about 700 out of the medical center’s total workforce of 7,000. In addition, Spooner also helped coordinate efforts to expand IT services to outside tents that were used for drive-through testing. “The hospital did have a number of out-of-town workers who were working remotely, but a number of them weren’t used to doing it,” he said. Surveys of those workers found that “a few employees really missed being on campus. We had some who had elderly relatives either nearby or living with them, and they especially appreciated (being able to work from home) and not having to be exposed” to the virus. “There was some concern about productivity, but senior executives were protective of staff and worried about calling them back too soon. They realized that we were in it (remote work) for the long haul.”

Beyond that extension of services, the IT department also helped to adjust order sets for clinical staff as they fine-tuned their approach to treating patients with COVID-19. In addition, the chief technical officer devised a strategy to use iPads that were configured to enable patients to communicate with their families. The CTO also deployed Amazon Shows to provide convenient communication between nursing stations and the patient rooms. The approach enabled clinicians to limit their own exposure to patients, thus saving on the use of protective personal equipment, Spooner said.

Conserving PPE was crucial because of shortages and difficulties in acquiring it, he noted. “There was a lot of concern about getting protective equipment. Every day, we received reports on the numbers of days of N-95 masks, surgical gowns and other PPE that we had; sometimes, it was down to days of supplies,” he added. Senior executives were going to extraordinary lengths to procure PPE, such as driving personally to get supplies.

The pandemic took a large financial hit on organizations because many, like CAMC, scaled back or eliminated elective procedures. Although facilities are beginning to cautiously ramp up such interventions now, Spooner said, thanks to the experience they’ve gained with keeping COVID patients isolated, protecting staff and managing patient visitation to contain the potential spread of the virus, making up for the cost of dealing with the pandemic will remain with healthcare organizations for years to come.

Conferencing technology emerged as a key to CAMC’s functioning without missing a beat. Spooner said it was already in use at the facility before the pandemic, and it was widely used after more licenses were purchased. Analytics, too, were helpful in preparing the organization for surges in cases, he added. CAMC was constantly tracking local and statewide trends to predict the next potential surge or, hopefully, declining COVID incidence to allow resumption of more normal operations.

The teamwork at the organization most impressed Spooner. “I’ve been in healthcare for over 40 years, and I developed such a respect for this team to work together in a real crisis situation to get the job done.”