By Jeffrey Ruiz, CHTM

I’ve been contemplating this question a lot over the past year. With COVID-19 much more under control than when the pandemic first started, along with vaccinations, potential herd immunity, and a possibly more weakened virus, we can start looking back and ask the question, “Did we win?”

Before entering the pandemic phase, we all felt we were ready for the challenge and would face it head on. We did all the necessary homework to prepare: We looked at proper PPE precautions, and at how to best use the appropriate medical devices needed to combat the effects of the virus. We also had to develop screening protocols in keeping our staff and patients safe, and, eventually, work on vaccination management.

Significant Struggles of the Pandemic

And while we thought we could rely on our supply chain strategies, the pandemic quickly showed that there were kinks in our “just-in-time” strategies. The industry also saw a mass exodus of individuals with significant knowledge, problem-solving and critical thinking skills, who left not only the HTM space but healthcare, in general. The pandemic was, perhaps, a catalyst for many baby boomers to retire. We’ve seen the effects of this in healthcare, with medical manufacturers, and even in the regulatory environment, with not enough staff able to fill many of these open roles.

The pandemic impacted us all in different ways. Many of us have family and friends who lost a loved one due to the virus. An overlooked result of the pandemic was its impact on mental health. From the frontline workers fighting the virus to those who had struggled to endure the life-changing behaviors, especially younger people.

I personally experienced this when I lost when my 18-year-old son to teenage suicide. You can’t help but feel the lockdowns and reduced social interaction may have played a role in the mental health challenges he was facing. I believe that many of the frontline workers may have also experienced the effects of PTSD while fighting this pandemic. We all lost something in this pandemic.

However, we did see a world come together. We did discover strategies and new successes during the pandemic. Never has the HTM community faced such a worldwide challenge and yet we came together as one.

Early in the pandemic, I was participating in an AAMI webinar where we were developing strategies to be prepared to fight the virus and were able to hear the stories firsthand of what Europe was doing to address challenges early on. The lessons learned, what worked and what didn’t, etc. To witness the HTM and healthcare industry communicate on a worldwide level was something unprecedented.

There were some great collaborations between hospitals, ISOs, and manufacturers as we were all in the same struggle. There were new infrared temperature scanning technologies, virtual communication strategies, and even 3D printing solutions, the latter of which were being developed to combat the parts shortage. There were also remote technologies that were developed and fast tracked to help mitigate the risk of infection and improve the safety of frontline worker. Some strategies worked, and some did not. Through it all, however, we continually learned from our challenges and adapted.

Looking to the Future

So, as we look to the future, we still have some supply chain challenges that need to be shored up. Our patient volumes are not quite at the consistent rate we had seen prior to the pandemic. We are all experiencing hiring and retention challenges. And more and more new technologies are being developed and implemented, which need our guidance and our keen eye for patient safety to help ensure the devices and solutions are rolled out effectively.  

One thing I know for sure, we as an industry must find a way to keep moving forward. There are going to be many challenges we will have to face. Collaboration between in-house teams, ISOs, and manufacturers will need to continue to develop. We were all impacted by this horrible virus and lost something, some of us more than others. We owe it to those who are no longer here to continue to go on, to keep moving forward, and to keep being the stewards of patient safety.

As I have been struggling with the question of “Did we win?” over the past year, I think, maybe we didn’t. Maybe we just survived. And that, in the end, is all that we can hope for.

Jeffrey Ruiz, CHTM, is senior site manager for West Michigan. Questions and comments can be directed to [email protected].