DMU M.H.A., M.P.H. students are health heroes amid pandemic crisis

While the coronavirus shut down major aspects of daily life for many, those working in health care and public health, of course, have to soldier on. These front-line health heroes face significant risk of contracting the virus and passing it on to loved ones and colleagues. That happened to the Chinese doctor, Li Wenliang, who tried to issue the first warning about the deadly coronavirus outbreak last December but was told by police to keep quiet. He fell ill while working at Wuhan Central Hospital in Wuhan Province and died on Feb. 7.

“We are all in the front lines of battle against COVID-19 in some fashion or form, whether it is simply trying to flatten the curve via social distancing or taking extra precautions to wipe items down to help decrease the spread of the virus,” says Amir Ansari, M.D., an emergency medicine physician at Piedmont Medical Center in Rock Hill, SC, and a student in DMU’s master of health care administration (M.H.A.) program. “At my facility, all providers are wearing N-95 masks and then covering these masks with surgical masks to allow them to be re-used as there is a shortage of appropriate personal protection equipment. In addition, we have to wear goggles for eye protection and a face shield over them to prevent goggles being soiled.”

Katy Demeulenaere, also an M.H.A. student and an emergency room social worker at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City, supervises a team of 15 social workers who are considered “essential staff.”

“Our work requires us to go bedside, which can be really scary during this time as there’s always a chance someone may have the virus and are not showing symptoms – yet,” she says. “I’m also part of a group within our administrative hospital incident command team where we are currently trying to gauge childcare needs for our large workforce and assist staff in finding the necessary resources…I’m exhausted and scared and I feel like we haven’t seen the worst of what’s to come.”

Ansari and Demeulenaere praise their colleagues for stepping up, cross-training and simply supporting each other. Fellow M.H.A. student Blake Nettleton, the nursing home administrator at Accura Healthcare in LeMars, IA, also applauds other entities that have rallied together in the battle against COVID-19.

“Over the past few weeks, I have been slammed with countless meetings, conference calls and video chats with my company owners, Iowa Health Care Association and other health care organizations in the surrounding community. It has been amazing to see the amount of help and guidance our industry has received from all entities at the local, state and federal levels,” he says. “If anything has solidified why I chose health care, it is because of the last three weeks.” 

As necessity is the mother of invention, recent weeks have spurred new tools to fight the virus. Nihad Ejubović, a student in both DMU’s M.H.A. and master of public health (M.P.H.) programs, is a Waukee, IA-based telecommuting clinical analyst on the national behavioral health team at OptumCare; its clinicians worked with UnitedHealth Group on a study of nearly 500 patients to get the first self-administered COVID-19 swab test to received approval by the Food and Drug Administration. Ejubović and his colleagues hope that widespread adoption of the test, which is less invasive than the clinician-administered test, will reduce exposure for health care workers and improve overall testing efficiency across the country.

“Aside from the clinical studies we are running, we also expanded telehealth options to all providers so members don’t have miss their critical appointments or put themselves in danger by going out,” he says.

Several DMU M.H.A. and M.P.H. students find themselves using, more than ever, knowledge gained from their course work while on the job. Jennifer Bender, an M.P.H. student and director of marketing for Prairie Lakes Healthcare System based in rural South Dakota, has been tasked with serving as public information officer (PIO) for her county’s incident command.

“My education has served me well, as collaboration is key during these times. The police department’s PIO and I have worked together and implemented daily briefings with the media, sharing them live on our city’s GovTV and a special Facebook page,” she says. “This experience has already taught me so through experiencing the incident command system. It is my professors who have best prepared me for this level of collaboration and bureaucracy.”

Katie Arens, an M.H.A. student and a patient experience specialist at Sanford Health in Sioux Falls, SD, describes how the pandemic itself has reshaped her organization.

“I’ve been pulled in to oversee the screening process for anyone that enters our facilities and enforce new visitor restrictions. These past two weeks have been filled with difficult conversations and an overall change in mindset. We’ve had to consider making decisions for the greater good more than ever,” she says. “A shortage of masks means that our screening personnel, who interact with hundreds of people a day, are not allowed to wear a mask as it isn’t recommended by the CDC.

“I anticipated my M.H.A. program would prepare me to be a leader over the next two years, but I never anticipated that a global pandemic would utterly force me into leadership overnight,” she adds. “I will never take a slow day at work for granted ever again in my entire life.”

Toilet paper-hoarders and spring break partiers aside, Ansari, the emergency physician in Rock Hill, SC, says he takes heart in the humanity he’s seen during the COVID-19 crisis.

“It is such unprecedented times, but what I do find remarkable is that the community, providers, health care workers and people in general are all united in this fight together. Trying to bring out the positive of a negative situation, the people of the United States have become more united, and I feel that everyone is willing to help one another,” he says. “I am proud to be among the very best of people with their open hearts and kindness and willingness to risk their health to help care for those in need.”

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