Kimberly Marselas

Over the last few months, one phrase seems to have fallen out of favor when it comes to the virus that causes COVID-19.

When was the last time you heard someone refer to it as the “novel coronavirus”?

A year into this crisis, scientists and healthcare providers know so much more about SARS-CoV-2, from how it spreads to what it does to the body and, increasingly, how important the quick rollout of vaccines will be to slowing dangerous mutations.

As guidance continues to change, providers have a better understanding of where they can find treatment resources, specific strategies and explanations of new regulations. But what about the next time there’s a “novel” event?

It’s all but certainly coming. So what can the industry do to better anticipate such unimaginable challenges? How will nursing homes formulate action plans when confronted by another contagion with never-before-seen impacts?

There isn’t any single, simple answer, of course. But I’d say part of the preparation should build on a concept that’s actually far from novel.

President Joe Biden is hoping to throw federal support behind state-led strike teams that can deploy to nursing homes and help manage COVID-19 outbreaks. At least 10 states have used the strategy already.

Sure, more medical staff makes a difference when a building is overwhelmed and its workers quarantining after potential exposure. But strike teams are also successful because they bring with them innovative ideas they’ve succeeded with in other settings. They also help with the technical and logistical aspects of rolling those out, and provide crucial project management skills that resource-sapped building leaders might not be able to deliver.

Still, under the current model, such strike teams are tasked with extinguishing raging fires.

With direct access to more expertise all the time, nursing homes would be better equipped to build the kind of firebreaks that save lives and, nearly as importantly, providers’ reputations.

This non-novel approach could rely on relationships with local healthcare leaders from higher education institutions and university-affiliated hospitals. Scientists and doctors who have their hands in late-breaking research can use their networks to shed early light on what’s happening, whether that’s during this crisis or the next one.

For some providers, relationships with referral hospitals or hired infection control experts were major difference makers when everyone was scrambling for COVID-19 solutions. The question is how more providers can institutionalize such partnerships and make them workable, regardless of geography, size or budget.

Collaboration is a key component of a pilot program soon to be launched by the John A. Hartford Foundation. It will pair selected Pennsylvania nursing homes with clinical nursing centers at major universities in an ongoing effort to “enhance care and inspire students,” according to foundation president Terry Fulmer, Ph.D., R.N. 

Fulmer tells me the program is modeled, in part, on rapid response healthcare teams Pennsylvania created in the midst of the pandemic. It also takes inspiration from the Teaching Nursing Home concept popularized in the 1980s by the Robert Wood Johnson foundation and others. In both cases, nursing homes received an influx of clinical expertise and resources they couldn’t dream of funding alone and on shoestring budgets.

On the one hand, nursing homes participating in the new pilot will have free access to geriatricians, infection control specialists and others whose extensive training can elevate quality of care and provide new insights for nursing home staff.

On the other hand, university students will come to better understand the needs of elderly patients and, possibly, find a connection that sparks interest in the long-term care field.

Fulmer says it’s time to focus the kind of innovative thinking that went into last year’s speedy vaccine development on nursing home staffing and operations, which could benefit significantly from more collaboration, sustained change and better educated staff.

Is that “novel” thinking? Maybe not.

But it’s a great reminder that successful collaboration doesn’t have to wait until you’re passing buckets on a fire line.

Kimberly Marselas is Senior Editor of McKnight’s Long-Term Care News. Follow her @KimMarselas.