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Stepping up for patients in need: How Nemours Children’s Health rallied amidst crisis

When COVID-19 started to spread last year, chaos descended on the nation’s healthcare industry. Overwhelmed by the highly contagious disease, rapidly filling hospital beds, and an accelerated shortage of supplies like ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE), the industry was facing a bleak future.

Yet even in the face of this unforeseen crisis, so many healthcare workers not only persevered, but doubled down on continuing to prioritize the patient and family experience. It’s these individuals and organizations that we honor with our NRC Health Excellence in Human Understanding Award. This article is one of a series highlighting the remarkable stories of healthcare workers who have made a meaningful difference in patients’ lives.

One of our 2021 finalists is Nemours Children’s Health’s telehealth team and the many volunteers from within its Center for Health Delivery Innovation (CHDI) who stepped up amidst the COVID-19 lockdown. The telehealth team – led by Sue Voltz, Administrator for the Nemours Children’s Telehealth Program – managed a rapid transition of care from its 24-7/urgent-care virtual services (averaging roughly 50 calls a day) to answering upwards of 600 telehealth calls a day at the peak of the COVID-19 lockdowns.

This article explores how Nemours Children’s successfully pivoted its approach to patient care during the onset of the pandemic, and how it continues to keep Human Understanding at the core of its care delivery today.

Transitioning to virtual care

Telehealth was just starting to gain traction prior to the pandemic. Fast-forward to today, and it’s now a foundational part of healthcare delivery in this country. Despite the rise in demand for telehealth during the pandemic, however, its adoption has not been without challenge.

The CHDI team at Nemours Children’s knew they had to adapt quickly. “The telehealth landscape changed for patients and clinicians overnight, creating a substantial learning curve for everyone,” said Voltz. “Most parents had never experienced a telehealth visit, specialty-care clinicians were unfamiliar with the platform, and our own team behind the scenes was inundated with calls from worried parents trying to get care for their children.”

Formed years prior with a mission to simplify the pediatric healthcare journey, Nemours CHDI offers telehealth services, created and supports the highly integrated Nemours app, and maintains ​​KidsHealth.org – the number-one website devoted to the health of children and teens. With the virtual and digital experience at the core of its work, associates from design, research, web solutions, editorial, and business development were quick to volunteer. While not directly involved in the medical care provided, these associate volunteers were able to field the increased number of calls and make sure patients, families, and providers were connected.

Kira Theesfeld, Digital Manager at Nemours Children’s, said, “on these calls, we listened and gained an awareness of just how small our world was,” said Theesfeld. “We heard babies crying on the other end. We spoke with grandmothers assisting with the virtual visits while Mom was at work. We understood the frustration when a device wouldn’t connect or a password needed to be reset. We found associates who spoke Spanish to help translate. We appreciated the importance of remote care when helping a teen connect with his/her psychologist. We sent texts from our personal devices if we couldn’t reach a family via phone for an early morning appointment—and we answered the texts back, late into the evening. We helped our clinicians connect with patients. We did whatever it took to provide assistance, ease fears, and ensure access to care.”

Human Understanding at the core of care

For Nemours Children’s, Human Understanding has always been at the core of its mission.

Voltz, who has been leading the telehealth charge at the organization since 2019, said, “Human Understanding is being able to put yourself in the shoes of the people you’re trying to serve, and in this case it was our patients and families. Programmers, writers, and editors from across our team were joining forces with the telehealth team to make sure that each one of those families got the attention they needed and their child could receive the right level of care. That for me is what epitomizes Human Understanding—everyone committed to the same cause.”

The team never wavered in their commitment to bringing Human Understanding into the patient experience, regardless of whether care was delivered virtually or in-person. But ultimately the rapid transition to telehealth offered the Nemours Children’s CHDI team key learnings on how to be more effective and thoughtful in their work.

“Through our collective grit, perseverance, and empathy, we not only got it done, but we also grew,” said Theesfeld. “As a team we huddled, shared, learned, and improved. We built new systems and processes to be more effective and efficient, and we gained an understanding of the patient families we serve, and of ourselves.”

Associates from every department took it upon themselves to volunteer for work that was unfamiliar because they knew it was needed. This included clinicians –  many of whom had never taken telehealth appointments before, stepping out of their comfort zone to serve patients. And while it wasn’t a perfectly smooth transition, everyone embraced the challenge, leading with Human Understanding every step of the way.

Meeting families where they are

The team at Nemours Children’s already had a telehealth system in place, so it wasn’t a matter of how to implement virtual care, but rather meeting families where they were and providing what was needed in the moment.

The Nemours Children’s telehealth team and the many associates who volunteered made over 36,000 phone calls in the initial weeks of the COVID-19 lockdown, transitioning patients to virtual care. Their dedication to the patient experience is genuine and awe-inspiring, and is one of the many reasons we celebrate their work today with our Excellence in Human Understanding Award.

Congratulations to Sue Voltz and the whole Nemours CHDI team for their contributions in elevating the pediatric care experience in the interest of Human Understanding.