Guest Columnist

We risk failure if we don’t manage this well

By , Guest Columnist Updated: August 26, 2020 10:16 AM CT | Published: May 04, 2020 4:00 AM CT
Michael Ugwueke
Guest Columnist

Michael Ugwueke

Michael Ugwueke is president and CEO of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare.

In these early days of May, as our region begins the long and careful process of reopening, let’s take stock of where we are and where we need to go.


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In my three decades in healthcare, I’ve never seen a time so deeply troubling in certain aspects, and yet so profoundly uplifting in others. We make progress against every challenge presented to us. Yet, each step forward comes with the risk of easy failure if we don’t manage this well. In the past two months, we’ve experienced anxiety, fear and heartbreak. But we’ve also seen bravery, compassion and an unrelenting spirit of determination.

<strong>Michael Ugwueke</strong>

Michael Ugwueke

We are not out of the woods, but by pulling together we have flattened the curve, allowing hospitals time to acquire and manufacture protective gear, ramp up testing, and learn more about treating this new virus. Memphis-area health systems have worked collaboratively at all levels, which has been so gratifying and productive to our common mission. We look forward to sustaining this collaboration on other key public health issues in the future.

Outside of the hospitals, everyday Mid-Southerners have heeded the call to quarantine, often at a great personal cost. As difficult as it has been, school and business closures have made a difference. Social distancing has made a difference. The cancellation of beloved celebrations has made a difference.

All this sacrifice to flatten the curve is making possible the careful resumption of key parts of our economy. Today marks the beginning of a three-phase approach, each phase 14-days, to restart Shelby County.

This is important because a prolonged lockdown is more than an economic disaster. It’s a threat to public health. People need health systems. People need early diagnoses services, chronic disease management, behavioral health, critical treatments and lifesaving therapies. We risk a different kind of public health crisis if people let their chronic conditions go untreated.

 A prolonged lockdown is more than an economic disaster. It’s a threat to public health. People need health systems. People need early diagnoses services, chronic disease management, behavioral health, critical treatments and lifesaving therapies. We risk a different kind of public health crisis if people let their chronic conditions go untreated. 

At Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, we are carefully reopening our non-urgent care services, guided by our first priority: the safety for our patients, staff, providers, and the community. We are taking this step forward only because we have built the necessary capacity to manage the COVID-19 crisis and respond to a potential surge. We believe we have enough staffing, testing, personal protective equipment and supply capacity to handle a surge.

“Going slow to go fast” describes a strategy of being measured and methodical in the early phases of a journey. Caution is vitally important now. Nothing would be more demoralizing than having to shelter-in-place all over again because we didn’t do the right things in these coming months.

For the average citizen, doing the right thing means continuing to practice social distancing even as we increase our mobility. It means keeping our vulnerable population safe. It means isolating ourselves at the first sign of symptoms.

It is possible that our new mobility will cause an increase in the number of cases. This will be scary. Some will understandably stay sheltered. But we must press on. Everyone can be assured that Methodist and other local health systems, including our health departments are working around the clock to monitor upticks and outbreaks.

In the longer term, this crisis should spark new questions about healthcare in this country. How can we make our medical supply chain more effective and less dependent on foreign countries? How can we reform the way healthcare is delivered and paid for in this country? It’s a cruel irony that systems like Methodist, fighting on the front lines against COVID-19, are becoming financially weakened precisely because we are at the forefront of this battle. That makes no sense and illustrates the dysfunction of the current healthcare economic structure.


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In its place, we need a financial and delivery model based on the principles of broad access, better outcomes, and lower costs. We need to focus on prevention, intervention, and innovation. For example, telehealth can help reduce costs and improve access. Out of necessity, we quickly scaled up our telehealth services and are learning a lot about the benefits of this technology.

This crisis is also shining a light on the shameful reality that COVID-19 disproportionately impacts minority communities. As a society we must do better in addressing the social determinants of health. It is unacceptable that African Americans are more vulnerable, not only to COVID-19, but to heart disease and a host of other chronic and potentially life-threatening conditions. Memphis-area health systems, in collaboration with other nonprofits, must build on all the good work of our Community Needs Assessment reports and find new ways to address long-standing challenges with systemic change.

Finally, the world has learned a hard lesson about preparedness. An old proverb teaches us that the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The next best time is today. So, we need to plant the tree of better pandemic preparedness for the sake of our children and grandchildren. This must be done globally, nationally, regionally, and locally. It starts by doing a better job of imagining the unimaginable.

We will get through this. We will have moments of frustration and moments of doubt, but the Mid-South area has had trials and tribulations before, and we’ve come out on the other side smarter and better for the experience.

Editor’s Note: The Daily Memphian is making our coronavirus coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed. Our journalists continue to work around the clock to provide you with the extensive coverage you need; if you can subscribe, please do

Michael Ugwueke is president and CEO of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare.

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Michael Ugwueke coronavirus COVID-19 Reopening

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