By Dave Hendrick
Like his peers in the University of Virginia Darden School of Business Executive MBA Class of 2020, Dr. Taison Bell’s world has been upended by the global coronavirus pandemic. As a critical care and infectious disease specialist and director of the medical intensive care unit at the UVA Health System, Bell is a leader in the rapidly evolving response to the pandemic, a role that involves trying to ensure adequate resources, advising on treatment and prevention, and, of course, tending to patients.
Bell described the whirlwind of recent weeks as something of a de facto capstone project to his time as a Darden student, putting lessons in operations, entrepreneurship and communications into practice at critical junctures.
Bell recently shared thoughts on the pandemic, including what everyone needs to know and why health care may be never be the same. Read Part 1 of the two-part discussion below.
What are three things everyone should know now about coronavirus?
I think the three most important things to remember are: one, good hygiene really goes a long way in helping to control the spread of the virus. That includes things like washing your hands for 20 seconds with a soap or alcohol-based solution and stopping habits that we have like touching our face, because that’s a way that the virus spreads.
Number two, I cannot stress enough the importance of social distancing right now. This concept of flattening the curve, we’re seeing how it plays out in areas like New York where there’s a certain need for patients who are critically ill, but the hospitals are getting overwhelmed.
Social distancing helps us smooth that out a little bit. So, the cases may still go up, but they won’t go up at the rate that overwhelms the health care system. Social distancing means staying at least six feet or more away from others who don’t live in your household and not going to public places where there are lots of other people around.
Then the third is to try to remain calm. I think with the news cycles, there is anxiety and you have your individual worries like we all do, but you also see that everyone else around you is also very worried.
And that leads to group anxiety and it’s rising rapidly. It’s important to remember that 80 percent of people who get this infection are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms.
It’s the people who have suppressed immune systems and folks who are older who are the ones that you really want to pay attention to.
How do you think the U.S. health care system will weather the pandemic?
In places like New York City, we’re seeing how in densely populated areas you can see a lot of cases explode rapidly, and it’s become clear that we have weaknesses and vulnerabilities when it comes to our ability to handle a surge situation like this. There are some areas in the country where the cases won’t spread as rapidly. There will be some areas where we have problems that will be in line with what we saw in China and Italy — so there will be hotspots in the country, some areas that weather it relatively well compared to others and some that just get overwhelmed. I do think it’s going to put a strain on the overall system, but there will be variation from region to region.
What lessons should we take from the deficiencies in the U.S. health care industry that are being exposed during the response to the pandemic?
There are three main things that have come to light.
I think we’ve learned that we have an issue with our supply chain in the United States for health care. So much of it is dependent on manufacturing overseas, in China and other countries. When there’s a huge demand on the supply, we don’t have the capacity here to manufacture replacements in a large, coordinated fashion. That’s one weakness.
Second is, regulations did get in the way of our ability to rapidly change health care to what it needed to be. The testing has been limited at least early on by regulations that required a lot of hurdles that may have been necessary when the law was created but, frankly, aren’t anymore because technology has advanced so much.
For a microbiologist, this is not a very complicated test to set up. But what is hard is making sure that you can get FDA-approved reagents, extraction kits and routines that can actually run the data. UVA actually had machines in our lab that are capable of doing the test many, many weeks ago. But we weren’t able to use them early on because they weren’t approved through the FDA’s normal pathway. That regulation was relaxed and that helped us shorten our lead time by a lot.
Another one is telehealth. There are a lot of physicians working from home and patients are at home who don’t want to come to the hospital, but they still need care.
We’ve been able to expand telehealth in dramatic fashion and I think that’s been a really good thing. There were a lot of HIPAA regulations in place that required us to use certain systems that were outdated and could not keep up with the pace of technology. But now we can actually use tools like Zoom. We can use FaceTime and Google Hangouts.
We can use all of these different ways that people already used to take care of patients.
The third is just planning for our surge capacity and that ties it to the supply chain and regulation.
How do we make sure that we can have a coordinated effort to get supplies to where they need to be? Right now, this is pretty much a state-regulated situation — there’s a loose conglomeration and not very high-level coordination, and that’s really a weakness in our health care system that hopefully will change coming out of this.
About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business
The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D., MSBA and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.