Grinnellian Covid Experiences - Christine Thorburn ’92

“Humans are capable of adapting to much more rapid change than we usually feel comfortable to make.”

June 24, 2020 — Christine Thorburn ’92 is interim CEO and board chair of the Palo Alto Foundation Medical Group.

Christine Thorburn ’92
    Christine Thorburn ’92

Our group diagnosed and cared for California’s first known COVID-19 patient, back in late January, who had been a business traveler from China.

That gave me pause, because we live and work in Silicon Valley where there are many, many business travelers between China and California. However, the point when I realized our work and lives would fundamentally change was the day the news reported a clear community-acquired case of COVID-19 in our local area. At that point, our triage of patients into our offices for care needed to change dramatically.

We rapidly escalated a plan to divide our physical clinics into “respiratory clinics” and “other care” urgent clinics, at the same time we developed de-escalation plans for all of our ambulatory and clinical practice patients, which we needed to do to limit physical exposure of other non-urgent patients.

We needed new methods of caring for [patients], both to keep them safe and receiving care they need and to keep our business financially viable. Our larger system had been working on a video-visit project, which we had hoped to roll out over two years as the private insurance companies and possibly Medicare changed their agreements to allow payment of them.

Medicare said “yes” to paying for almost all care by video visit (except procedures and surgeries, of course) by mid-March. Within 10 days, our system rolled out a plan to allow for video visits not only for my medical group, but for all six medical groups within Sutter Health. We are still working out the kinks, but it is humbling to see not only my clinician colleagues adapting but also our patients, including 80-year-olds using smartphones or computers with cameras.

I am motivated to work with my colleagues to develop the “new normal” way of caring for patients to remain as safe as possible, both for patients and for providers, since we will need to remain vigilant about the easy spread and [asymptomatic] presentation of this novel virus.

What have I learned? Humans are capable of adapting to much more rapid change than we usually feel comfortable to make.

Read more stories about Grinnellians facing COVID-19 head-on.