Now is Not the Time to Let Our Guard Down

Longtime healthcare CEO Jeanette Clough, MHA ’96, HDBA ’11, says to put COVID-19 behind us, we must first learn the lessons it is teaching us

Interview by Beth Brosnan
Photography by Adam Detou

Jeanette Clough, MHA ’96, HDBA ’11, understands how ready everyone is to be done with COVID-19.

The only problem, she says, is that COVID isn’t done with us. “COVID took hold rapidly, and we will continue to deal with its repercussions for a long time to come,” says Clough, a Massachusetts healthcare leader and CEO for 26 years until her retirement in June.

Clough began her career as a staff nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital, then moved to Waltham Weston Hospital & Medical Center, where she became vice president of patient services while also earning her master’s degree in healthcare administration at Suffolk. In 1995, she was appointed CEO of Deaconess Waltham Hospital. Three years later, when she took the helm at Mount Auburn Hospital, she became the first nurse to ever lead a Harvard-affiliated teaching hospital. She served two five-year terms as a Suffolk University trustee, and in 2011 was awarded an honorary degree.

As a past chair of both the Massachusetts Hospital Association and the Health Forum Board of the American Hospital Association, Clough has a broad perspective on how hospitals are navigating the pandemic.

“As we move forward,” she says, “we need to continuously prepare, improve, reassess, and train for the next coronavirus or emergency.”

Q: Hospitals have faced the threat of pandemics before, including SARS and Ebola. What made COVID-19 different?

A: Put simply, the COVID-19 pandemic has been unprecedented. Before we could get testing in place, the virus was out in front, threatening and infecting those with comorbidities as well as the general population. As we know now, the elderly and those living in extended-care facilities were squarely in harm’s way.

Next, while there was a lot of discussion about various approaches to care, there was really no ‘go-to’ medication or treatment to offer the general population until the vaccines became available. This is a heart-wrenching place for caregivers to be, to have no effective medication or clear treatment to offer those who are sick and suffering.

Finally, even with the vaccines, COVID’s different variants continue to surprise and challenge us. Now is not the time to let down our guard.

Q:What were some of the biggest challenges that hospitals in Massachusetts and around the country faced in the early days of the pandemic, before there was a clear understanding of what the virus was and how it was transmitted?

A:Testing was a major challenge. Everything from how and where to test to learning how to actually do an effective nasal swab were early questions. Hospitals had to establish testing sites that would offer protection for both providers and patients, while also bypassing emergency departments so they could continue to only treat the sickest patients and provide general emergency care. Many hospitals set up drive through testing sites so that both asymptomatic and symptomatic patients could be tested in a safe manner. Initially, getting test results could take as long as eight to 10 days, but over time the processing improved. Yet testing supplies remained a challenge for many hospitals.

Providing appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), which is so essential to the overall logistics of care, was another early challenge. Masks, eye shields or glasses, protective gowns to cover clothing, hair and shoe covers, and gloves—all needed to be available to providers 24/7. Supply-chain leaders throughout the country worked diligently to provide access to all of these items.

Q:You began your career as a nurse. Can you talk a little about the role of nurses and other frontline care workers during the pandemic—the pressures they’ve faced, the impact they’ve had?

A:I have always felt that it was a special privilege to be a nurse. It’s almost impossible for me to put into words how proud I am of the care and compassion that nurses have shown throughout the pandemic, here in Massachusetts and around the world. They have seen untold suffering and sorrow. They have held the hands and looked into the eyes of patients who were so incredibly frightened and alone. They have comforted the dying when no one else could be present. They have put their lives at risk on a daily basis, and more than 1,100 U.S. nurses died during the pandemic’s first year.

They’ve also shown leadership from the bedside to the board room, helping to steer plans and logistics essential for protecting patients, care providers, and the general public. I send my personal thanks to all of my nursing colleagues, and hope they can do whatever it takes to stay strong as the pandemic continues.

Q:What new policies and best practices are emerging?

A:The pandemic turned many things upside down, especially for patients who needed routine healthcare but couldn’t access it. This was a perfect opportunity to increase the use of both telemedicine with online applications and telehealth with telephone visits. Thanks to Zoom and other applications, physicians can now see patients in their homes or extended care facilities, and virtual visits have become a routine service across the country.

Many practices adopted during the pandemic are also becoming more routine. Hospitals across the country turned to their command centers and put in place daily huddles as a way to provide clear, reliable communication to our frontline workers. Also here to stay are increased use of PPE and heightened hygiene precautions, which not only limited the spread of COVID but also led to a dramatic reduction in flu outbreaks.

Q:Hospitals are dealing not only with the pandemic but also with the partisan politics and disinformation that surrounds it. How do we move forward from this and focus on science?

A:As health professionals, our goal is to prevent disease and foster good health. With more than 5 million deaths worldwide, we can’t fall prey to distractions that threaten those goals. We must stay focused on scientific facts and data. Compromised data is worse than no data at all, while studies that are done according to objective, valid, and reliable methods are priceless.

Hospitals and health professionals must provide clear information about the risks and often-devastating outcomes of COVID-19. Where there is mistrust and misunderstanding, we must seek to understand and educate.

And until the death toll stops rising, prevention and diligence through vaccination, distancing, hand washing, and masks should be routine and not optional.

Jeanette Clough, MHA ’96, HDBA ’11

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