Image for Emory COVID-19 Preparation Is a Crisis Plan Case Study

Emory University Hospital provides a real-time example of smart and potentially life-saving crisis preparation.

When the first news of a viral outbreak began filtering out of Wuhan, China, Emory officials began preparing in December for what emerged as the COVID-19 pandemic. Emory healthcare professionals applied lessons learned from their experience treating Ebola patients in 2014, training their staff on bedside diagnostics and the safe use of personal protective equipment.

Dr. Jonathan Lewin, CEO of Emory Healthcare, told NBC’s Cynthia McFadden the Emory team recognized the strange new virus would challenge the entire healthcare system, including its personnel, safety gear and supply lines. Lewin said Emory Hospital department heads have been practicing a disciplined form of social distancing for months to prevent exposure that could cripple a key medical or response team.

Anticipating the need for face shields, hospital officials coordinated with biomedical engineers at Emory University and nearby Georgia Tech to design and produce them via 3D printing. With a fully trained staff and stores of equipment, Emory has already treated 600 COVID-19 patients and is prepared for an expected wave of more patients in the next two weeks in the Atlanta area.

Lewin said his colleagues paid attention to and learned from the experiences in China and Italy, the first European epicenter of the coronavirus. They have continued to watch how strategies in New York City and elsewhere are working to contain the outbreak.

Emory’s crisis preparation was featured on the Today show.

Emory University is among the first healthcare systems to develop a blood test for COVID-19 antibodies, which can provide valuable information to clinicians and public health officials on the disease’s impact on individuals and communities that is critical to mapping the next steps in addressing the pandemic.

Urging crisis preparation can feel like trying to convince a sleepy teenager to do their homework. Too often, preparing for a crisis is not viewed as a priority. Too frequently, failure to anticipate a crisis scenario leads to bad results and a counterproductive blame game.

The Emory example underscores five crisis preparation nuggets of wisdom:

Pay attention to warning signs. The outbreak of an unknown virus in a faraway Chinese city didn’t go unheeded. According to Lewin, it triggered Emory officials to look into the virus and learn all they could about it. Early detection of a potential widespread threat preserved for Emory the most valuable asset in a crisis – time.

Assess the probability and consequence of a crisis scenario. Lewin and his colleagues correctly recognized the global scale of the viral outbreak, which, unlike the Ebola virus, couldn’t be contained in a single region. They used the time they preserved by early detection to prepare a thoughtful and comprehensive response, which included staff training, designated hospital space and an inventory of critical supplies, some of which they creatively sourced themselves. The early self-distancing of key department heads lessened the potential for infecting entire teams of healthcare professionals that would be needed when the outbreak reached Atlanta.

Identify your go-to information resources. Emory University Hospital, one of the nation’s highest ranked facilities for treating infectious diseases, didn’t have to look outside its own ranks for go-to information resources. The university’s Division of Infectious Diseases is widely respected for its advances in treating highly communicable viruses, which is why Emory was chosen in 2014 to treat two Ebola patients at a time when the disease cast a fearsome specter across the world. Tapping experienced physicians and nurses in the university hospital galaxy may seem like a non-brainer, but sometimes the most obvious, close-at-hand resources are overlooked in the press of a crisis. Emory officials went one step further and collaborated with their engineering colleagues at Emory and Georgia Tech to create face shields, which they early on realized would be in short supply.

Apply lessons learned. Few crises are unique. Easily transmissible viruses that sweep across the earth are not new. Emory hospital officials applied their collective knowledge and experience to develop a crisis plan and avoid planning on the go when the crisis hit. They employed the knowledge and skills from treating Ebola patients to prepare to treat COVID-19 patients.

Walk the talk. Crises cause chaos and crisis response has enough challenges without flying blind. Crises put reputations on the line, which are too valuable to squander by uncoordinated or careless crisis responses. It is hard to walk the talk of your organization in a crisis unless you are prepared. Emory University reaffirmed its reputation by anticipating and being prepared for a crisis that caught many communities, nations and even experienced epidemiologists by surprise.

Give yourself the gift of time by taking the time now to identify crisis scenarios that can disrupt your organization and damage your reputation.