(Courtesy: Cook Children's)

Health Systems

COVID-19 One Year Later: Cook Children’s CEO Rick Merrill

"We’ve got a group of staff who, every day, when they come to work, ask themselves, 'How can I help Cook Children’s fulfill the promise that it has made?'"

COVID-19 began taking hold of headlines and the economy about a year ago in Dallas. While it will forever impact almost all industries, the healthcare sector was the front line of fighting the disease and had to be more agile, innovative, and resilient than ever.

D CEO Healthcare is sitting down with health system leaders to reflect on how the last year changed them, their companies, and the industry forever. Read on for insights, takeaways, and silver linings surrounding fighting the pandemic from Rick Merrill, CEO of Cook Children’s Health Care System. 

Rick Merrill (Courtesy: Cook Children’s)

Looking back, what was life like at Cook Children’s prior to the pandemic?

“It was business as usual in a lot of ways. We were coming off of an incredibly busy first quarter for fiscal year 2020 with historical highs in patient volume. So there was a lot of hard work by a lot of people putting in a lot of hours at Cook Children’s. We were laser-focused on strategy so that we could continue to keep up with this growth that we’re experiencing in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. We honed in on our plans to grow into Prosper and to expand our Dodson Specialty Center and a new parking garage that goes with it. We had just finished our Walsh Ranch expansion in western Tarrant County, and we were looking at a number of other opportunities as well. So we were very busy, but very positive about the future of Cook Children’s, and then the pandemic hit. That certainly changed a lot about what we did and how we thought about moving forward as an organization.”

When did you realize COVID-19 was something you were going to have to  address at Cook Children’s?

“Clearly, as the president and CEO, the buck stops here. I took on that responsibility as I always do when something is potentially going to create a crisis or an opportunity for this organization. It’s important that I take the lead and organize our teams effectively to address the situation at hand. We decided early on to set up the COVID-19 Command Center, staffed by an outstanding group of health care leaders. They were able to efficiently deal with the day-to-day issues, including questions and concerns from our 8,000 employees, and coordinate our efforts in a way that allowed us to successfully navigate the COVID-19 crisis.”

What were some of the bigger challenges Cook Children’s faced during the pandemic?

“There were so many challenges. But at the top of this would be the well-being of all of our employees and the patients and families we serve. We were absolutely committed to ensuring their safety through having adequate PPE and test kits. In fact, at the beginning of COVID, we laid out three guiding principles for our organization:

  1. Zero transmission of COVID-19 from a patient or caregiver to our staff.
  2. No patient encounter without appropriate PPE.
  3. There is a bed and clinical support for every patient.

We communicated regularly and showed each and every day we were—and still are— absolutely committed to these guiding principles.”

Why do you think Cook Children’s was able to make decisions quickly and be successful during the pandemic?

“We have an organization that is comprised of local board members and local leadership. We don’t report to a corporate office in some far off place. We don’t have to raise up the flag to someone at corporate to get approval. We can all make quick decisions when we need to. I will tell you that our board gave me and our executive team carte blanche to do what we needed to do when we needed to do it: They supported us when we needed to pivot to ensure that our families and our patients were given the best possible care and that our employees were all taken care of and safe.

That also was part of that decision to make sure we paid everyone full pay through this pandemic, no matter what. And even the physicians, the 450 employed physicians, for some of whom productivity went way down and some were even at home for a period of time, we continued to [make full payment on their salaries]. We did not have any layoffs nor any reductions in force. And I think that was a big plus for us, but I think that speaks to our culture, and who we are, and how we work hard to take care of each other.”

What did you learn about your staff after all of this?

“I don’t think I learned anything new. I think there was just confirmation of what I already knew. We’ve got a group of staff, all 8,000 people, who, every day, when they come to work, they leave self at the door and they walk into this organization. They ask themselves, ‘How can I help Cook Children’s fulfill the promise that it has made?’ Our Promise reads: ‘Knowing that every child’s life is sacred, it is the Promise of Cook Children’s to improve the health of every child through the prevention and treatment of illness, disease and injury.’ And not a day has passed in which I haven’t experienced, witnessed, or even thought of acts of incredible courage, kindness, commitment, and resiliency. Those are the things that I saw over and over again and continue to see through this crisis. The leadership team has really been thoughtful about how we can continue to support the entire organization in a way that everyone knows that we have their back.”

How has the pandemic impacted Cook Children’s future?

“I believe the COVID-19 crisis brought out the absolute best in everyone at Cook Children’s, and it’s something that I’m very proud of. Throughout the crisis, we expanded our emphasis on improving patient and family experiences. Our leadership team will continue to drive a culture that fosters a collegial and collaborative environment, in a way that’s meaningful for our employees, physicians and, of course, our patients and their families.”

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