MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (WV News) — After a slowdown beginning in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, WVU Medicine is rising to the occasion to continue its mission to improve the health of West Virginians and all served by the system through excellence in patient care, research and education, according to the system’s president and CEO.
Through the shut down of non-essential surgeries and procedures that began in March, staff in WVU Medicine facilities were figuring out how to do lab testing in doing their best to ensure there wouldn’t be a surge in hospitalizations and working out how to gather personal protective equipment, said Albert Wright, WVU Medicine president and CEO.
“That was a scary time, especially for our clinicians. They’re on the front lines, so as folks are coming in, and now it’s funny, COVID feels like it’s been here forever, but when we first started, we didn’t know a whole lot about it. We didn’t know how it was transmitted; we didn’t know when people were most vulnerable and, think about it, this is a droplet-spread disease that nobody had any immunity to and people were most contagious when they were asymptomatic. So it was a scary for a lot of our providers, but they came to work everyday like troopers and realized we have to care for the most vulnerable,” Wright said.
“I’d never want to do it again, but I’m very proud of our teams and how we handled it,” he said.
Eight months later, communication processes have evolved. Reports now go out every 12 hours to alert all WVU Medicine system hospitals as to capacity and where there may be shortages in testing or personal protective equipment, so the system can “turn on a dime and react to any hot spots,” said Dr. Judie Charlton, WVU Medicine chief medical officer.
A potential bright spot of the pandemic, however, is that it forced medical facilities to jump into telemedicine and telehealth at unprecedented rates, Charlton said.
Through October of 2019, completed telehealth and telemedicine visits across all WVU Medicine facilities totaled less than 200. In the same period of 2020, there were nearly 160,000 visits , according to data provided by WVU Medicine.
These services were essential during shutdowns to keep patients and providers safe in the early days of the pandemic while personal protective equipment was scarce. Moving forward, these services could prove to be a lifeline to rural West Virginians without easy access or transportation to health care.
With telemedicine and telehealth, geographic barriers begin to disappear, Wright said. A provider can potentially see patients in Morgantown, Beckley and Martinsburg all in the same hour, he said.
Behavioral medicine services, which do not typically require physical hands on the patient or physical exams, have particularly thrived under telehealth.
“We really need to get expertise to people who have trouble traveling to see us. It’s been a great success, and some of our service lines, our no-show rates actually decreased significantly because patients really like being able to pick up their smart phone and be able to connect with a virtual visit, so actually we saw more compliance with doctor’s visits,” Charlton said.
Work has also continued on other projects, including WVU Medicine Children’s construction. The project is expected to be completed in June or July 2021, Wright said.
“It’s going to be the most spectacular healthcare building in West Virginia. It’s a lot of fun. We’re seeing tremendous success in recruitment of our pediatric providers, (and) pediatric sub-specialists,” Wright said.
According to Wright, providers are “coming out of the woodwork” to apply for the opportunity to work in the new children’s hospital.
“We’ve got great providers here, but a lot of times, especially when you’re working at a high level like we are up here in Morgantown, folks want to come to a place … that embraces their sub-specialization, so if you’re a pediatric radiologist, or a pediatric anesthesiologist, pediatric neurologist, cardiologist, you want to work in a place that is invested in being a top-level pediatric provider, so we’re very much seeing that as we put a face to this already great program,” he said. “I think it’s going to exceed all expectations.”
In Fairmont, WVU Medicine has applied to the West Virginia Health Care Authority for a certificate of need for 32 additional beds, which would bring the overall number of beds in the Fairmont Medical Center to 42. WVU Medicine opened up the Fairmont Medical Center earlier this year at the site of the former Fairmont Regional Medical Center after Alecto Health Care shuttered the facility earlier this year.
In January, Uniontown Hospital’s intent to join WVU Medicine was announced, and the affiliation was celebrated in September.
Also in September, the health system announced the acquisition of Wheeling Hospital after operating under a management services agreement for over a year.
Decisions on mergers, acquisitions and new facilities incorporate “a little bit of art and science,” Wright said. “We want it to be a win-win for both parties.”
Increasing the system’s service area helps to ensure there are enough referrals and patient volume to support high level services like heart and kidney transplants, cancer surgeries and neuromodulation at the Ruby Memorial campus in Morgantown, he said.
The WVU Medicine system has recruited over 600 physicians, mostly in Morgantown, over the last five years by creating a system that provides them an opportunity to have an impact on addressing unmet community needs, Charlton said.
The system is also focusing on building post-acute care services across the state, including home health care and placement of hospitalists within nursing homes, creating a continuum of care that allows the patient to seamlessly move from an in-patient setting to a home or long-term care facility. Patient electronic medical records allow home health nurses to see everything that happened while the patient that was in the hospital
The system is also working with the state to be ready for the eventual release of a COVID-19 vaccine, including installation of special storage freezers at five strategic locations throughout the state, Wright said.
“We’re looking forward to a vaccine being available and being a part of how it’s distributed and used,” Charlton said.
Staff Writer JoAnn Snoderly can be reached at 304-626-1445, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @JoAnnSnoderly.