Community Leadership During a Fast-Changing Pandemic: Setting Up the COVID-19 Call Center at Yale New Haven Health

March 24, 2020

// By Marcia Simon, APR //

Marcia SimonCrisis management is a standard part of hospital communication preparedness, but who could ever have anticipated the coronavirus pandemic? How do you communicate to your community and patients about a pandemic when nobody anywhere has all the answers?

Yale New Haven Health clinicians and ancillary staff quickly came together, launching a call center to handle the barrage of questions — from sick patients, healthy patients, doctors, nurses, employees, community members, business owners, and anyone else concerned about the growing spread of COVID-19.

The healthcare system encompasses five hospitals; 6,685 medical staff; and more than 26,000 employees across inpatient and ambulatory services in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Westchester County in New York, where one of the nation’s first coronavirus cluster outbreaks occurred.

Christian Pettker, MD, associate chief quality officer, Yale Medicine, Yale New Haven Health

Christian Pettker, MD, associate chief quality officer, Yale Medicine, Yale New Haven Health

“Aside from being proactive in managing an intervention in the communities we serve with the standard steps that other hospitals are taking — have employees work from home when possible, canceling meetings, canceling elective procedures and nonessential ambulatory visits — we quickly set up a call center as we have done in the past with small outbreaks and local issues,” says Christian Pettker, MD, associate chief quality officer for Yale Medicine and Yale New Haven Health.

Setting Up the COVID-19 Call Center

The Yale New Haven Health COVID-19 Call Center makes it easy for anyone to call one phone number (833-ASK-YNHH) with concerns related to the coronavirus. Questions cover the gamut:

  • “Should I cancel my hip replacement?”
  • “Can I get an extra refill on my child’s asthma medication?”
  • “Should I tell my employees not to come to work?”
  • “How do I not feel guilty when my mom with dementia in a nursing home wonders why I’m not coming to see her?”
Yale New Haven Health has a dedicated information page for Coronavirus (COVID-19) Information with a prominent button for the COVID-19 Call Center.

Yale New Haven Health has a dedicated information page for Coronavirus (COVID-19) Information with a prominent button for the COVID-19 Call Center.

“Hospital operations have drastically changed due to this epidemic, so we have people answering calls for as long as we need. A lot of our providers want to be part of it. Doctors come in, wanting to help,” says Dr. Pettker.

About 20 people are on the frontline, answering phones between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., expanded to seven days per week due to the growing volume of questions from communities. These are highly skilled professionals — from social workers and nurses to various clinical support staff — who have been diverted from other job duties to manage and redirect each call as necessary. Based on the caller’s question and possible symptoms, the call may be transferred to a physician or other specialist in Infection Prevention, Infectious Disease, Human Resources, or other specialty.

Telehealth to the Rescue

“If a patient has symptoms or wants to be tested, we can put them into a telehealth visit,” says Dr. Pettker. “Either through a phone or video chat, we can assess an individual’s health and come up with a management plan based on whether the person is experiencing respiratory, breathing problems, or other symptoms that may indicate coronavirus infection.” Individuals may be referred to the Emergency Department if acutely ill or in need of hands-on evaluation. “We’re trying to keep people out of the clinical offices as much as possible,” Pettker adds.

As an example, three coronavirus-positive people showed up at a non-affiliated urgent care center in one local community and, as a result, the center had to temporarily close, which put it out of commission for people who had medical issues unrelated to the current pandemic.

Hungry for Answers

YNHH’s Covid-19 Call Center opened Monday, March 9 with almost 400 incoming calls in a 12-hour period, mostly from New Rochelle and Westchester County, which is part of the system’s service area. By the following Monday, daily calls were beyond 2,500 with steady growth each day.

Maribeth Cabie, PharmD, director of Clinical Redesign, Yale New Haven Health

Maribeth Cabie, PharmD, director of Clinical Redesign, Yale New Haven Health

Questions to date have come in from about 25 states, two foreign countries, and one professional sports organization, according to Maribeth Cabie, PharmD, director of Clinical Redesign, Yale New Haven Health’s physician-led partnership between front-line clinical teams, performance improvement specialists, and sophisticated data analysts.

Special COVID-19 Coverage

We are providing much of our coronavirus-related coverage free of charge as a service to our readers. If you are not already a subscriber, please consider signing up to ensure you receive all the latest news of concern to health care marketing professionals.

Yale New Haven Health pushed out the news about the call center using multiple social media platforms. It’s prominently displayed on the five hospital websites, too.

The call center started in a large conference room in Yale New Haven Hospital and quickly moved to a larger auditorium as the pandemic grew, call volume increased, and social distancing required individuals to stay a minimum of six feet away from one another. Some professionals work offsite while taking calls, and much of the telemedicine takes place at the health system’s video center in another town.

Yale specialist physicians meet every morning, in person and remotely, to share knowledge, such as test updates and geographic movement of cases. Material is available on the system’s intranet site and through SharePoint and Tableau, although Pettker believes that nothing replaces human-to-human communication among individuals who bring their expertise in a variety of different areas.

As more people adjust to social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19, the medical community is sending the message to “call first.” It’s an attempt to redirect individuals who have caught the coronavirus to specified treatment locations, thus keeping healthy patients well for any necessary doctor appointments during this turbulent time.

OB/GYN and Maternity Care and COVID-19

Dr. Pettker is a specialist in OB/GYN, specifically Maternal Fetal Medicine, or high-risk pregnancy. His patients need ongoing visits as part of their pregnancy care.

“Our physician practices have worked hard to communicate with ambulatory patients during this new reality. Practices have canceled or postponed a lot of nonurgent, nonessential visits. Some, though, you can’t defer,” says Dr. Pettker. Pregnancy care is a great example.

“We reassure our patients that their doctor’s office is a safe place to come for a visit. Every patient is called prior to her scheduled appointment to ask if she is feeling well. Anyone experiencing upper respiratory discomfort, fever, or other possible COVID-19 symptoms is diverted for care to another location, while we see healthy patients in an office setting. There is also a very visible sign on every door asking patients not to enter if they don’t feel well and, instead, to call the office. The phone number is on the sign and we do get phone calls from women who respond by calling us from their cars,” Pettker adds.

As of this writing (3/19/2020), knowledge and experience with COVID-19 during pregnancy is limited. According to Dr. Pettker, women who are: pregnant; have gestational diabetes; have a high BMI; or are breastfeeding are not at any higher risk for contracting the virus. The CDC recommends that women who are infected with the coronavirus opt for formula-feeding rather than breastfeeding.

Marcia Simon, APR, writes about health, healthtech and wellness. As principal of MSE Public Relations, she manages content, strategic communication and media relations for digital health clients. Email her at marcia@mseusa.com or visit LinkedIn.com/in/marciasimon.