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People have been ‘frightened to go back to hospitals and clinics’: UCLA Hospital System CEO

Melody Hahm
West Coast Correspondent

Much of the rationale for the flattening of the curve, to make space for patients with the novel coronavirus. But multiple health experts say this has an unexpected second order effect — leading to Americans neglecting their health concerns, which have done anything but subside. 

California was the first state to implement a mandatory stay-at-home order, opted early on to adopt a proactive approach, rather than face the risk of being overwhelmed. Los Angeles has become the epicenter of the virus, logging the highest number of cases of the state’s 58 counties,

University of California Los Angeles’ Health System, which operates four hospitals and 180 clinics in Southern California, was fully prepared to handle the surge in novel coronavirus cases, but never saw unmanageable demand, according to president Johnese Spisso, who also serves as CEO of the UCLA Hospital System.

“The cooperation we had from people in our state was tremendous. We created capacity but at no time were we really overwhelmed,” she said in an interview with Yahoo Finance this week.

After monitoring worldwide cases in January and February, UCLA Health began seeing its first COVID-19 patients in early March. 

“Many of the hospitals here created that capacity but never filled to the volumes you were seeing particularly of our colleagues in New York. So by the second week in March, we had begun canceling and postponing any non-emergent or urgent surgeries and procedures,” said Spisso.

“Our hospitals that usually are at 100% capacity quickly reduced to about 50% capacity. Our ambulatory clinics also dropped to about 50% capacity. We picked up a lot of patients transferring to video visits. So we went from doing 150 video visits a week to over 10,000 a week very quickly. In the first few weeks of March alone we canceled or postponed 6,000 surgeries or procedures,” she added.

A nurse wearing a protective mask participates in a rally to support the National Nurses United and California Nurses Association's demand for personal protective equipment for healthcare workers across the state at UCLA Medical Center Santa Monica, in April 13, 2020, in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by VALERIE MACON / AFP) (Photo by VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images)

“What we learned is the public was very frightened of hospitals and clinics. We had to do a lot of outreach education. We worked together as a hospital community in Los Angeles to educate the public and to tell them it's time to come back for the health care they have put on pause. We were especially concerned as a tertiary medical center, reduction we saw even in our emergency departments in heart attacks and strokes. We know COVID did nothing to cure those, so we were very concerned people weren't presenting for the care that's needed. We very quickly began to see that as we opened back up, who really should have been coming in a lot sooner,” she said.

‘Life may be on pause. Your health isn’t.’

Earlier this month, UCLA Health teamed up with five of the largest nonprofit health care networks across Los Angeles to launch BetterTogether.Health, a campaign to encourage community members to put health first and access care when needed.  

UCLA Health, Providence, Keck Medicine of USC, Kaiser Permanente, Dignity Health and Cedars-Sinai, which collectively serve 8.4 million Angelenos, launched public service announcements with themes that include, “Life may be on pause. Your health isn’t.,” “Thanks L.A. for doing your part” and “Get care when you need it.” 

Beyond the impact on individuals who neglected their non-coronavirus related health concerns, this fear has inevitably impacted the bottom line of hospital systems.

UCLA Hospital System was forced to tap financial reserves to close a gap of more than $85 million as of mid-May. The system, which employs 30,000 people, reported a $140 million revenue loss, which was partially offset by $55 million in federal aid, which covered about one-third of losses from March and April. 

“In the month of April, we had a revenue drop that isn't sustainable, which is why we've been anxious to return to our normal business of health care so that we can really meet our mission for the community. So our health system — like so many [others] in the country — has really had to weather some extreme economic losses,” she said.

Melody Hahm is Yahoo Finance’s West Coast correspondent, covering entrepreneurship, technology and culture. Follow her on Twitter @melodyhahm.

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