Stamford Health president/CEO (opinion): The future of health care in post-pandemic landscape

Stamford Health President and CEO Kathleen Silard looks out a window of Stamford Hospital overlooking the former hospital in Stamford, Conn.

Stamford Health President and CEO Kathleen Silard looks out a window of Stamford Hospital overlooking the former hospital in Stamford, Conn.

Hearst Connecticut Media

As we move into the endemic phase of COVID-19, it’s important that we continue to assess our current health care system. We need to evolve and determine how we can best address the ongoing and new health challenges in this country — including the mental health crisis — while deepening ties with our communities, supporting our physicians and ensuring the best possible outcomes for all patients.

It’s Time to Reimagine the Role of the Hospital

COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted the elderly and communities of color, and hospitals have a meaningful role to play in addressing the systemic issues that created this disparity. Together with our physicians, our mission is to be a community pillar, ensuring the well-being of our community inside and outside our walls. This approach — which pushes a hospital’s mission beyond its patients — is not without its challenges, but it results in improved health outcomes for people of all backgrounds.

Stamford Hospital is a safety net hospital, meaning we serve a diverse socioeconomic community. In 2021, we provided about $94 million in uncompensated care for our community. To build trust with underserved groups in the larger Stamford area, we work with partners such as the Vita Health and Wellness Initiative, a collaborative committed to helping Stamford’s most vulnerable members, as well as Charter Oak Communities, the NAACP, Building One Community, Americares, Family Centers, Optimus, CHC and others. During the pandemic, we launched programs with our community partners to address two of the biggest challenges that emerged during the pandemic: increasing testing prior to the vaccine roll-outs and getting vaccines in arms once they were approved.

Our community health work through Vita began before the pandemic and will continue long after. We strongly believe that taking a community-based approach to care is central to both the present and future role of hospitals.

We Need to Address the Mental Health Crisis

As people’s homes emerge as an alternate location for care, there’s an opportunity to redefine mental health service. About one-in-four Americans suffer from mental illness every year, and we know from our Community Health Needs Assessment that it’s a problem in our own community, yet a range of financial, cultural and social barriers prevent people from seeking the treatment they need.

At Stamford Health, we’ve launched a pilot program co-locating outpatient clinical service with behavioral health services to give patients greater access to behavioral health services in more convenient locations. We’re also partnering with organizations such as Optimus, Liberation House, Children in Crisis, and more to ensure that pediatric patients with behavioral health issues have a seamless handoff to the community-based care they need.

A Supportive Workplace is More Important than Ever

We cannot take care of our community if we don’t take care of our people.

Stamford Health team members have access to several helpful programs for their well-being including Spring Health, which provides day-of access to mental health services, allowing our colleagues to avoid the traditional three week wait.

We also help take care of the little personal things that we know can pile up and cause undue stress. For example, our Meals-to-Go program gives Stamford Health employees a ready-to-go dinner for two or four people, without the need to worry about shopping, meal prep and cooking.

Our employees are our most valuable resource and we’re able to deliver world-class care to our patients because our team is cared for and supported.

Digital Health Should Complement In-Person Care

At Stamford Health, we deliver outpatient services that balance virtual and in-person care to best serve our community.

It’s important that health systems invest in the technology and training to allow clinicians to succeed in a virtual setting while complementing existing in-person care resources. While telehealth eliminates some barriers to equitable and accessible health care — transportation, child care, etc. — it also raises new issues. For example, telehealth can be difficult to navigate for those who aren’t comfortable with technology, or those who lack consistent access to internet.

Part of this much-needed digital transformation also includes investing in upgrades to outdated front and back-end systems that are difficult to navigate for patients and physicians to eliminate additional barriers to care. Patients, like traditional consumers, want convenience, high-reliability, value and personalization and we need to deliver on that demand to create better outcomes.

While the digital health landscape will continue to change, one thing remains constant: our physicians are committed to providing expert care with a human touch, and to meeting the needs of our patients whether in-person or via telehealth. The bottom line is that in-person care is never going away — great care is still rooted in personal relationships — but health care providers can take steps to build out a digital experience that complements the services we offer on-site.

Patients Benefit from Expanded Points of Care

Co-locating clinical services including heart and vascular, cancer care, orthopedics, women’s health, neurosciences and more, is part of our larger strategy to add more points of care throughout the greater Stamford community and beyond. We’re investing not just in digital options, but ambulatory locations and services that provide more flexibility for our patients.

The evolution from hospital-centricity to a model that is increasingly distributed and diversified across care settings will lower costs, increase access and ultimately benefit the community at large. Stamford Health has been a leader in this area — today, approximately 70 percent of our revenue comes from ambulatory care, a much higher percentage than many independent hospitals.

The pandemic made it clear that we need to rethink the old ways in which we operated, and build new models of health care that prioritize equity, accessibility and a focus on the patient’s experience across their care journey. These initiatives represent the foundation of a three-year strategic plan Stamford Health just launched to ensure that these goals are met, our community is taken care of, and that we can offer the services required of this new landscape.

There’s a lot of work to be done — and our promise is that we will stay nimble and evolve with the times to deliver world-class care for our community and earn our spot as their most trusted health care partner. We know this will take time and a lot of elbow grease, but we’ve got our sleeves rolled up and we’re ready to do the work.

Kathleen Silard is president and CEO of Stamford Health.