Dr. Mohammed Shafeeq Ahmed, CEO and president of Howard County General Hospital, discussed the COVID pandemic, healthcare hiring, vaccines and expanding local medical services as guest speaker at the Rotary Club of Columbia-Patuxent’s Oct. 8 breakfast meeting.
Dr. Ahmed was appointed to his leadership post by Johns Hopkins Medicine in June of this year. He had been serving as interim president since November of 2020. Prior to that, he was vice president of medical affairs and chief medical officer. Previously he served in healthcare leadership at hospitals within the BayState Health System in Massachusetts.
A gynecologist-obstetrician by training, he was in the Navy Medical Corps as an attending physician with the rank of Lieutenant Commander. Dr. Ahmed grew up in the US Virgin Islands for a good portion of his childhood, but also lived here and saw Columbia as an incredibly progressive, important and really wonderful place. He was eager to come back to work and live here. He and his family reside in Clarksville.
Dr. Ahmed said the world changed in 2020 because of COVID. The challenge for everyone, hospitals included, was how to respond and manage that, especially not knowing how the pandemic was going to turn out. Doctors and staff members worked to care for patients and to keep themselves safe. By and large they were successful, but extra stress and burnout has taken its toll. The hospital here - like others nationally - is struggling to find healthcare employees that would love taking care of people and taking care of their community.
In addition to staffing, the big issues now include getting people vaccinated, getting booster shots out, and getting through this COVID wave and the next one. Maryland and Howard County have been doing very well with vaccinations, keeping our disease rate down. Now, the hospital has to care for other patients returning for other treatments, posing time and management issues. Fortunately, Howard County General is able to handle that safely, but “just not necessarily as fast as we'd like to be,” according to Dr. Ahmed.
Dr. Ahmed said the hospital “thinks ahead” in five-year increments focusing on “where we need to be and where we've been.” The commitment remains for high-quality care and high-quality outcomes. There are opportunities to improve operational efficiency. Expanding clinical services to have more Johns Hopkins specialists here in Columbia “is a great opportunity to continue to make sure that you can get that top notch care right here,” he said. “I'm looking at a number of specialties and working with folks to get those things going.”
In response to questions from club members, Dr. Ahmed touched on these other topics:
NURSING SHORTAGE - In addition to staff burnout, the growing travel nurse industry has impacted hospitals adversely. Better pay, bonuses and improved working conditions are part of the answer, along with fewer barriers for persons wanting to enter the nursing profession.
VACCINE SAFETY - The hospital has a vaccine mandate for its employees because patients need to feel the facility is safe and that they have a very low COVID risk when coming in for treatment.
PANDEMIC BECOMING ENDEMIC - Are there going to be regular requirements for COVID vaccines on an annual basis like the flu? And will they be combined or multiple shots? It’s anyone’s guess right now, Dr. Ahmed said, but the likelihood is this could turn into a flu shot type thing, where every year there may be different strains, and we prepare for different strains and get an update.
MORE PROGRAMS TO DEVELOP HEALTHCARE PROFESSIONALS - In general we need more schools and programs, but shortages in the number of professionals also is affected by where practitioners are. Some are becoming boutique practices that limit access. The real question is: do we have enough of the right type of doctors practicing in the right places?
“Here in Columbia, you have no shortage of physicians,” Dr. Ahmed said. “If you go out to rural areas, that's where you have a real shortage. I worry about smaller hospitals and rural places where you don't necessarily have access to care.”
DRUG PRICES NEGOTIATION - Yes, from a supply chain perspective, as a whole health system, we negotiate with the insurance companies and the drug companies, plus we have some special drug pricing programs.
TELEMEDICINE - Is being used more in practices, less in hospitals. Medicine has been fairly antiquated as an industry, in terms of how we adopt technology and how we move to the next step. But, definitely, it's the way of the future and a total game changer.
RANSOMWARE - Hospitals are constantly on the defensive and try to stay prepared, but this is a consistent threat. If you have to shut your IT system down for a few days, it's devastating. This issue is less about the loss of life due to ransomware - that’s not common - but more about the massive inconvenience to all our patients.
SUPPORT AND ASSISTANCE FROM ORGANIZATIONS - Help the community remember that the hospital, as a nonprofit, needs local support for its fundraising, to understand the why, and understand what we're doing, and why it's so important. In terms of volunteering, ever since COVID struck our volunteers have been put on pause until we feel things are safe. But there are always volunteer opportunities, just on hold at the moment.