Responding to a crisis: Keeping staff and patients safe in a pandemic

Adapting to COVID- 19 has been a herculean task for all employers, but hospitals have been dealt one of the toughest hands. Making Rainbow Hospitals COVID safe while treating patients and allaying the anxieties of staff has been the focus of the company’s Head of HR, Rahul Kulkarni.

“This pandemic has struck recklessly, it was a big jolt to everyone,” says Rahul. “The first thing we did was put together a taskforce to devise a systematic response to everyday situations. The taskforce was responsible for overseeing all COVID-related matters and planning a strategy for business continuity, and our associates’ motivation and support.”

The management at India’s paediatric hospital group began by ensuring the safety of staff and motivating their teams, as external pressure on individuals to stay at home grew as the country went into lockdown. The approach hinged on communicating to the team that the group was equipped to manage the crisis and the safety of individuals was their priority.

Practical measures put in place to ensure the safety of both patients and staff included stringent testing, hygiene protocols, and social distancing to prevent the spread of infection as much as possible. The hospitals also introduced additional rules for older and more vulnerable patients.

“PPE was made compulsory for all the associates; setting up this policy was one of the first things we did, and we sourced the best quality protective equipment,” adds Rahul. A thorough assessment of awareness of ‘Dos and Don’ts’ during the pandemic was rolled out via an online quiz across the company. The results showed high engagement among employees and enabled the team to implement standard protocols and behaviour across all hospitals.

To minimise disruptions, many doctors were able to work remotely by holding virtual patient appointments through the hospital’s “Hello Doctor” platform. However, it was still necessary to maintain medical staff presence in hospitals to physically support patients.

“Initially when lockdown started all activity stopped suddenly,” recalls Rahul. “80-90 per cent of associates who work in our hospitals commute by public transport, and they were suddenly confined to their homes. Everyone got jittery. Most people got push back from their family who dissuaded them from returning to work, saying ‘what happens if you get ill’?” We counselled the families on steps taken for staff safety and wellbeing. We provided transport services to ensure they could commute safely. Our pitch was ‘a soldier during the war can’t be off duty; similarly a healthcare worker shouldn’t be off duty during health emergencies.'”

A dedicated COVID care centre for women and children was set up to keep all other centres COVID free. The team deployed highly trained staff to the centre and ensured their safety and well-being was cared for.

Other measures put in place to manage the number of staff in the hospitals at any one time included a reduced schedule, flexible shift arrangements, and the option for individuals to work from home, wherever possible. To minimise the infections, employees were discouraged from carrying meals to work, and the company altered working hours, so individuals were able to eat at home. This step also helped to reduce the overall headcount to further limit interactions.

While limits on staff numbers had threatened to be an issue for running of the hospitals, reduced patient numbers resulting from country-wide lockdown measures meant the team was not put under strain in the way they had anticipated.

Recognising that staff were working in extraordinary circumstances where it was impossible to eliminate all risk of catching the virus, accommodation was provided by the hospital in separate quarters for any team members who fell ill and anyone needing to self-isolate was provided with paid leave.

The company also provided health insurance, flu jabs, and offered nutritious food to boost immunity and motivation, and put in place a sabbatical scheme.

“We made commitments that we would take care of our associates,” says Rahul. “This was incredibly important to us.”

These practical measures have been complemented by online employee engagement and training to boost staff confidence and morale and help adapt to the overnight change in working practices.

“We are an industry where interacting with each other makes all the difference, and suddenly we have to move to a non-touch environment. This is a big shift for us,” explains Rahul. “Looking forward, our primary focus is on how to change the mind-set of people to continue care with a less human touch. This will be done by implementing new practices that are different from the past.”

The efforts of Rainbow’s team have paid off as patient care has been managed safely and staff remain engaged.

For Rahul, the staff response and current mood is testament to the success of the COVID response.  “Compared to morale and sentiment at the beginning of the crisis, the situation now is very different. Our associates and their families understand that circumstances are different and have confidence in the systems we have in place.”

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